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From Opinion to Reality: Translating Birchfield v. North Dakota Into The Real World

Posted by Aaron J. Wolff | Jul 27, 2016 | 0 Comments

Last month the United States Supreme Court came down with a decision in the case of Birchfield v. North Dakota. In that case, the court dealt with the question of it was constitutionally permissible to subject people to criminal penalties for refusing to take a warrantless breath or blood test. The opinion, which was written by Justice Alito, looked at the differences between the two types of tests.

The court determined that a breath test was much less invasive than a blood test. As such, the court determined that requiring a breath test without a warrant was permissible and so were the criminal penalties that some states impose for refusing the test. The court came to a different decision for blood tests. Because a blood test is much more invasive, requiring a needle to pierce the skin as opposed to simply breathing out, the court decided that a law enforcement officer would, generally, need to first obtain a warrant before getting a blood sample in DUI cases. That is, a state could not impose criminal penalties on a person who refuses to take a blood test without a warrant.

Once the Supreme Court has made its decision, it is up to the state courts and local law enforcement agencies to figure out how to implement new policies and procedures in order to comply with the court's opinion.

For example,in York County in Pennsylvania "officers no longer read warnings that state there are additional criminal penalties for refusing a blood test." The Supreme Court ruling is also affecting pending cases in the state. One such instance, as reported by the Daily Times, involved a man charged with both driving under the influence of alcohol and driving under the influence of drugs. He ended up having the second charge dropped by the prosecution "because it was only through a blood test that police were able to make out those charges." The man plead guilty to the DUI charge. The judge who accepted his plea stated that, "'He is getting the benefit of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.'"

Nebraska isalso adjusting its policies based on the high court's ruling. Nebraska was one of the state's where criminal penalties were imposed if a person refused a blood test. Some police departments, such as the "Grand Island Police and the Hall County Sheriff's Office rely on a blood test to find out a person's alcohol concentration level." The county attorney's office recommended for these departments to ask people to consent to the tests, because without the consent, "prosecutors will have to rely on what an officer sees and captures on dash cameras or microphones for evidence." Overall, the state relies more on breath tests, so the ruling won't affect every police department in the same way as it has the Hall County Sheriff's Office and the Grand Island Police.

At least one state will not have much to do to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling. Indiana will have very few adjustments to make, reports the Indianapolis Star. That is because the state already has its police officers "obtain warrants before requiring drivers to take blood-alcohol tests." In addition, the state does not criminalize refusal, instead imposing civil penalties. The Supreme Court ruled in Birchfield that civil penalties, such as license suspension, were permissible consequences for refusing to take a chemical test.

Sometimes the process of complying with Supreme Court rulings can be tricky, especially if the court's ruling is interpreted in different ways. The court may even see subsequent cases brought before where it has to address how to apply the previous decision, which gives the court a chance to clarify any confusion that may have arisen. Whether that will occur with Birchfield v. North Dakota remains to be seen.

If you or someone you know has been charged with driving under the influence, please do not hesitate to contact attorney Aaron Wolff today.

About the Author

Aaron J. Wolff

A former DUI prosecutor, Aaron Wolff has over 18 years of experience in representing people accused of DUI and is recognized as one of the leading defense lawyers in Washington State. His relentless and passionate advocacy has lead to superb ratings and outstanding reviews from former clients.


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