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    Birchfield v. North Dakota and DUI Blood Tests

    Oct 18 2017, by Mike Worgul in Criminal Defense, DUI
    Car keys on table next to empty alcohol glasses

    In the case of Birchfield v. North Dakota (2016), the United States Supreme Court held that state authorities may subject you to criminal penalties for refusing to take a breathalyzer test if you’ve been arrested for driving under the influence (DUI). On the other hand, the court ruled that the authorities may not penalize you criminally if you refuse to submit to a blood test after a DUI arrest.

    Birchfield was actually a consolidation of three cases involving DUI suspects who were subjected to or threatened with criminal penalties for refusing breath or blood tests after their arrests. The court’s rationale was articulated around the principle that, if giving you a chemical test without a warrant and without your consent is constitutionally permissible under the circumstances, then the authorities may punish you for your refusal.

    To discuss your situation with an experienced Pittsburgh DUI lawyer, call us today at (412) 281-2146 to schedule a free, initial consultation.

    When Is it Constitutional for the Police to Take my Blood or Breath Sample?

    The court based its decision on the prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures enshrined in the Fourth Atondment of the United States Constitution. According to earlier Supreme Court rulings, both blood and breath tests consist in searches under the Fourth Amendment. A search is unreasonable unless:

    • The police have a warrant from a judge or magistrate issued upon probable cause that describes the place to be searched and the things likely to be found
    • The search concerns only the suspect’s vehicle, which has been pulled over for a valid reason, and the police have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains illegal contraband or evidence of a crime
    • The suspect has given consent to the search
    • The suspect has been legally arrested, and the search only concerns the suspect’s person
    • The police face emergency circumstances that justify a warrantless search.

    In the case of Missouri v. McNeely (2013), the Supreme Court held that just because your blood alcohol content (BAC) level is going down doesn’t necessarily mean the police can take a blood sample from you without a warrant or your consent. The court held that you absolutely have a right to refuse this invasion of your privacy, although you may face administrative penalties for your refusal.

    Are Breath and Blood DUI Tests Legitimate Searches Incident to Arrest?

    In Birchfield v. North Dakota, the Supreme Court needed to address other justifications for testing drunk driving suspects without a warrant besides the circumstances exception addressed in McNeely. Specifically, the court looked at whether blood or breath tests fit into the category of constitutionally permissible “searches incident to arrest,” which don’t require your consent or a warrant.

    When the police arrest you, they are allowed to search your person for weapons and evidence. To determine whether blood and breath tests should be included in these searches, the court needed to weigh your right to privacy against the state’s interest in keeping the roads safe by catching and punishing drunk drivers.

    The court’s ruling was a compromise. Since a breathalyzer test is not particularly intrusive the state’s interest in public safety outweighs your right to privacy. But when it comes to blood tests, your right to privacy is more important than the state’s interest in keeping the roads clear of drunk drivers.

    How Might Birchfield Affect my DUI Case?

    The case of Birchfield will generally not affect your DUI case because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania only imposes an administrative penalty for refusing blood tests, as opposed to the criminal penalties that the Supreme Court now explicitly prohibits. But if a police officer coerces you into submitting to a blood test by threatening you with criminal sanctions and you decide to submit to the blood test because of these threats, Birchfield mandates that the evidence of your blood test be excluded from your DUI case.

    A Pittsburgh DUI Attorney Can Help

    At Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC, we closely follow developments in laws that might affect our clients’ DUI cases. We have built our reputation on an ability to obtain positive case outcomes through prompt and decisive action. If you’ve been arrested for DUI, call us today at (412) 281-2146 for a free and confidential consultation regarding your case.