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SCOTUS ponders criminal penalties for breath test refusal

Drivers in Texas who refuse a police officer's order to take a breath test may lose their driving privileges for up to two years, but motorists in 13 states who are suspected of driving under the influence would face separate criminal charges for doing the same. Police in these states have consistently supported mandatory breath test laws and argue that they cut down both drunk driving and road fatality rates, but civil liberties groups oppose the laws and say that they violate the search and seizure protections contained in the Fourth Amendment if no warrant is obtained. Lawsuits challenging the laws filed by drivers in North Dakota and Minnesota are now before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the justices began hearing arguments on April 20. The court is expected to rule in June.

Many legal observers expect the court to look for a compromise position, and Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that the criminal sanctions faced by drivers in states like Minnesota and North Dakota were not all that far removed from the adminstrative penalties handed out in other states. Justice Elena Kagan also appeared sympathetic to the arguments made by attorneys representing the states involved. The Obama appointee mused that it may not be appropriate to subject breath tests to the same rigorous scrutiny as more invasive blood tests.

However, some of the justices were surprised to learn that most breath testing in these states takes place in police facilities and not at the roadside. Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out to the attorneys representing North Dakota and Minnesota that obtaining a search warrant in such circumstances was essentially a formality, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor added that magistrates are often available around the clock for this very purpose.

While the results of breath or blood tests are often the most compelling evidence used against those facing drunk driving charges, they may be challenged by criminal defense attorneys in some situations. There are medical conditions that could lead to misleading toxicology test results, and inadequately-maintained breath testing equipment or mishandled blood samples may also be reasons to question this type of evidence.

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