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U.S. Supreme Court to hear breath test cases

California law requires motorists to submit to a toxicology test only after they have been charged with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but some states have laws that allow police officers to demand a breath test based upon their suspicion that motorists are intoxicated. These implied consent laws have generally withstood judicial scrutiny, but some observers feel that this may change in the near future after the U.S. Supreme Court announced on Dec. 10 that it would hear arguments concerning the constitutionality of laws that make the refusal to take such a test a separate crime.

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of civil rights in a number of recent cases involving the warrantless search of motorists or their vehicles. The court ruled in 2013 that search warrants must be secured before a blood sample can be drawn from an individual suspected of drunk driving, and another ruling made it illegal for police to search vehicles without a warrant unless they are acting to preserve evidence or safeguard their personal safety.

The cases that the Supreme Court will hear involve motorists from Minnesota and North Dakota, but other states have similar laws on the books. Attorneys representing Minnesota say that the motorists involved were charged before being ordered to submit to a breath test, but lawyers advocating on behalf of the motorists say that their clients should not face an additional charge for their refusal.

Those convicted of driving under the influence in California face a fine, a mandatory custodial sentence and the loss of their driving privileges for one year if they refused to submit to a toxicology test. Criminal defense attorneys could urge their clients to agree to breath or blood tests as the results may sometimes be challenged. Agreeing to a toxicology test could also possibly make some prosecutors more likely to consider reducing drunk driving charges during plea negotiations.

Source: The California Department of Motor Vehicles, "Implied Consent For Chemical Testing", accessed on Dec. 18, 2015

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