A Legal Bulletin for Pennsylvania Municipal Police Departments
Police Must Obtain a Warrant Before Requiring Blood Alcohol Tests in DUI Cases
On June 23, 2016, the United States Supreme Court ruled that that police must obtain a warrant before requiring a suspected drunk driver to submit to a blood alcohol test. In a 5-3 decision, the Court in Birchfield v. North Dakota made a distinction between blood tests (which are invasive and require search warrants) and breath tests (which the Court deemed to be less intrusive and not subject to the warrant requirement). “The impact of breath tests on privacy is light, and the need for BAC [blood alcohol content] testing is great,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the court’s majority. Justice Alito was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer. Justice Altio further held that blood tests are “significantly more intrusive” and do not justify violating Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches…” but breath tests are “no more demanding than blowing up a party balloon.”
The court’s decision means that suspected drunk drivers may be arrested for refusing to submit to breath tests, but not for refusing a blood test. The decision substantially impacts Pennsylvania’s “implied consent” law, which obligates motorists to submit to blood-alcohol tests once police develop probable cause to believe that they are operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicating substance. The holding may require changes in the manner in which police officers in your Department may investigate DUI cases; now, police must seek a search warrant from a neutral magistrate before a person is obligated to submit to a blood alcohol test. Accordingly, your Department’s personnel should be trained, and your operating procedures should be modified immediately to comport with the decision. The attorneys at Siana Bellwoar would look forward to counseling your Police Department in this area.
Christopher P. Gerber, Esquire is a Partner of Siana Bellwoar.
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