The case of Birchfield v. North Dakota was heard before the Supreme Court of the United States on April 20th, 2016. This case is a consolidation of three cases Birchfield v. North Dakota, Bernard v. Minnesota, and Beylund v. Levi. The petitioners are Danny Birchfield, William Robert Bernard, Jr., and Steve Michael Beylund. The respondent in this case is the State of North Dakota. The focus of this case is to fight serious harms inflicted by drunk drivers (Findlaw, n.d.). All states have laws that prohibit motorists from driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) exceeding a specified level. The penalty of refusing the test was originally suspension of driver’s license however, some states toughened their drunk driving laws making it a crime to refuse to undergo testing (Findlaw, n.d.). The issue that was presented before the court asks the question, can a state statute criminalize an individual’s refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test when a warrant is absent and whether this is a violation of the Fourth Amendment (Oyez, n.d.)?
In Morton County, North Dakota, Danny Birchfield drove his vehicle into a ditch. When officers arrived at the scene they believed he was intoxicated. After failing the field sobriety tests and breath test, Birchfield refused to consent to a chemical test. The arresting officer then advised him of his obligation under North Dakota law to under go a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and refusing to submit a blood test could lead to criminal punishment (Findlaw, n.d.). Due to his refusal Birchfield was then charged with a misdemeanor for refusing to consent to a chemical test in violation of state law (Oyez, n.d.). In a similar case in Minnesota, William Robert Bernard, Jr. admitted to police he had been drinking but denied driving his truck although he had the truck keys in his hands. He refused to perform the field sobriety test and was then arrested on suspicion of driving while impaired (DWI) (Oyez, n.d). Once arriving at the police station, he then refused to consent to a chemical test which was in violation of Minnesota state law. In a different incident, Steve Beylund, after being informed it was a criminal offense in North Dakota to refuse a BAC consented to the test which confirmed he was driving under the influence and he was then charged with DUI (Oyez, n.d.).
These three men challenged the state statutes criminalizing refusal to submit to a chemical test and argued that it violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures when there was no probable cause that would support a warrant for the test (Oyez, n.d.). In Birchfield’s case although he entered a guilty plea he argued the Fourth Amendment prohibited criminalizing his refusal to submit to the test. The State District Court rejected his argument and the State Supreme Court affirmed. Bernard who was charged with test refusal in the first degree, the Minnesota District Court dismissed the charges, but the State Court of Appeals reversed it and the State Supreme Court affirmed. In Beylund’s case, the State District Court rejected his argument that his consent to the blood test was coerced by the officer’s warning and the State Supreme Court affirmed (Findlaw, n.d.).
On June 23, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Birchfield v. North Dakota that a state statute may not criminalize the refusal to submit to a blood test in the absence of a warrant because, while the Fourth Amendment allows for warrantless breath tests incident to an arrest for drunk driving, warrantless blood tests incident to an arrest violate the Fourth Amendment (Oyez, n.d.). The opinion of the court was delivered by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. with 7-1 majority. Justice Alito explained, “Because breath tests are significantly less intrusive than blood tests and, in most cases, amply serve law enforcement interests, we conclude that a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving. As in all cases involving reasonable searches incident to arrest, a warrant is not needed in this situation” (Harrell, n.d.).
According to the Supreme Court, warrantless breath tests are permissible under the search incident arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement because they do not implicate significant privacy concerns (Oyez, n.d,). It involves minimal physical intrusion to capture something that is exposed to the public, limited information is revealed, and beyond arrest does not enhance any embarrassment. However, the blood tests do invade privacy of the subject because they are more physically invasive requiring piercing of the skin, the sample that is taken can be preserved, and can be used to obtain more information about the subject (Oyez, n.d.).
Due to the ruling of Birchfield v. North Dakota, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ruled on July 11, 2017 that blood cannot be taken without a warrant or consent and that it applies to both alcohol a drug related DUI’s (Fairlie, 2017). Prior to this ruling Birchfield’s applicability had not yet been addressed by the court to drug related DUI investigations. As a result, regardless of the suspected substance believed to be affecting a DUI arrestee, Birchfield is applicable and requires a blood test be permitted and required by a valid warrant, case specific necessity, or by voluntary and un-coerced consent (Fairlie, 2017). In conclusion, the Supreme Court has drawn a line between blood tests and breath tests destabilizing the law of exceptions to the warrant requirement and made the jobs of both police officers and lower courts more difficult .
Birchfield v. North Dakota. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved June 10, 2018, from https://www.oyez.org/cases/2015/14-1468
Birchfield v. North Dakota. (n.d .). Findlaw. Retrieved from https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/14-1468.html
Fairlie, S. (2017). Birchfield Ruling Applies to Drug Cases Too. Retrieved from http://fairlielaw.net/birchfield-ruling-applies-to-drug-cases-too/
Harrell, H. (n.d.). Birchfield v. North Dakota (United States Supreme Court): Expectation of Privacy for Blood Samples in DUI Arrests. Retrieved from https://www.radford.edu/content/cj-bulletin/home/november-2016-vol-11-no-1/birchfield-v-north-dakota.html
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