In most cases where laws change or courts issue rulings, the rights of DUI defendants are abridged. Legislatures take drunk driving very seriously and advocacy groups are aggressive about pushing for ever-tougher laws aimed at punishing people who get behind the wheel drunk.
Even the United States Supreme Court has failed to provide protection to DUI defendants in the past, ruling in a 1990's case that being stopped at a DUI checkpoint is an "intrusion on individual liberties," but does not violate the Fourth Amendment despite this intrusion because checkpoints are a necessary means of protection from DUI crashes.
Courts have also held that there is no Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination allowing you to refuse a test of your blood alcohol concentration. These rulings essentially create special carve-outs to certain constitutional protections which operate only in drunk driving cases. As part of the growing trend to make life harder for DUI defendants, 13 states have criminalized refusal to give blood-alcohol test samples. However, court challenges may provide relief for DUI defendants.
Criminalizing the Refusal to Take a Blood Test
As criminal penalties for blood test refusals have become more common, defendants in DUI cases have been pushing back. The good new is, there have actually been some rulings which seem to protect DUI defendants. For example:
- In 2013, the United States Supreme Court heard a case called Missouri v. McNeely, in which the court held police must obtain a warrant before subjecting a DUI defendant to a blood test. The fact the blood alcohol is being metabolized by the body was not considered an exigent circumstances which would justify drawing blood without the consent of the defendant.
- In 2015, a Hawaii Supreme Court ruled a defendant had consented to take a blood alcohol test only because of coercion; his consent was not freely given or voluntarily provided. The defendant was convicted based on evidence from the test; however, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction because the driver had a constitutional right to refuse consent to a warrantless search. The driver had signed a consent form only after police told him he faced 30 days in jail if he refused to submit to the test. The Hawaii Supreme court decision applies only in Hawaii.
The U.S. Supreme Court has also granted certiorari in State v. Bernard, which is a challenge to Minnesota laws making it a crime to refuse a blood test.
If the Supreme Court follows the reasoning of the Hawaii Supreme Court, and if it rules to truly protect the rights of defendants to be free of forced warrantless blood searches (which it made clear existed in McNeely), DUI defendants nationwide should be protected from states making it a crime to refuse a blood test when they are suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol. Hopefully, the court will not further abridge the rights of DUI defendants in this important case.