The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday regarding a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of arresting citizens who refuse to take a breathalyzer test to assess their blood-alcohol level.
Plaintiffs from 13 states are challenging those states’ laws that allow police to arrest citizens who refuse to take a breathalyzer test after being stopped in a traffic stop. The issue is whether or not the arrest for refusal is a violation of the Constitution as the officers do not usually possess a search warrant to conduct the search.
The Court appeared sympathetic early on in the proceedings with Justice Anthony Kennedy noting that all states may levy civil penalties for refusing and questioning why they should be disallowed from levying criminal penalties.
However, the states’ defense seemed to come apart as all the justices peppered the attorneys with questions regarding why such laws do not mandate a search warrant when a search warrant is so easy to obtain.
“It’s not that you don’t have an out,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “The issue for us is, do we dispense with a very important requirement in our law, that before you search particularly the inside of a person with a needle or in an intrusive way, that you get a warrant?”
The case seemed to further fall apart as the justices learned that such blood-alcohol tests take place at police stations, not on the side of the road.
“If you’re taking them to the police station anyway to do the breath test, and it just requires a phone call to get the warrant, what’s the problem?” asked Justice Stephen Breyer.
All states possess implied consent laws which mandate that those accepting a driver’s license accept that they are obliged to take such tests. However, some states make it a crime to refuse to take the blood-alcohol test, a distinction which takes the implied consent provision a bit too far, some allege.
Questions by the Court seemed to indicate that the justices may be seeking a compromise on the law, indicating that tests of blood or urine may require a search warrant in the future, but that breathalyzer tests may not.
Justice Elena Kagan said a breath test is “about as un-invasive as a search can possibly be.”
However, whether the test is invasive or not seems largely irrelevant. Whether the government peeks under a blanket or tosses an entire house is an irrelevant distinction if the officer does not have a warrant to conduct a search.
Why, then, should we be compelled to allow searches of our breath without a warrant, but draw the line at blood?
The purpose of the Supreme Court is to decide what is compatible with the Constitution, not what is the least-inconvenient way to have one’s rights violated.