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The Supreme Court’s Ruling on Breathalyzer Refusal Cases


Breathalyzer refusal and mandatory blood tests are hot-button issues. However, the Supreme Court put to rest any questions that people might have about the legality of requiring breathalyzers and blood tests of suspected drunk drivers. In a Supreme Court ruling of three breathalyzer refusal cases, the court came to an interesting conclusion.

The Breathalyzer Refusal Cases

There were three cases that sparked the Supreme Court decision. Known as Birchfield v. North Dakota, the breathalyzer refusal cases involved three drunk driving incidents. In each incident, the arrested man refused to give a breathalyzer or a blood test. In North Dakota, Danny Birchfield refused a breathalyzer. Also in North Dakota, Steve Beylund agreed to a blood test after police threatened him with a penalty. In Minnesota, William Bernard Jr. refused his breathalyzer.

The Outcome

After hearing the case, the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer can demand a breathalyzer from a suspected drunk driver. Any state in the US can legally require such a test. However, the blood test is different. Because of its invasive nature, the police cannot require a blood test. Likewise, no state in the US can legally require one. However, the police can get a warrant for a blood test. When they have a warrant, a suspect needs to comply and give a blood sample.

In addition to coming up with this general ruling, the court made individual rulings on the three separate breathalyzer refusal cases. First, the court overturned Danny Birchfield’s conviction. Then, they upheld William Bernard Jr’s conviction. Steve Beylund’s case was sent back to the lower courts. Because the court ruled that blood tests were not mandatory, the threats that the police made against Beylund were not true. It’s possible that the lower courts will overturn his conviction.

A summary of the ruling

The presiding judges made a few interesting comments about the ruling. One of the judges explained that breath tests are not very invasive and are enough for an officer to get results. For this reason, the judges agreed that requiring a breath test was acceptable. However, the blood test seemed excessive and invasive.

However, there are a few important details to point out about the ruling. For one, the breath test is only acceptable if a police officer suspects drunk driving. Another key detail is that the blood test could still be mandatory. For this to happen, the police officer would need a warrant for the blood test. Without one, a drunk driving suspect could decline, and he would face no penalties.

The judges did not all agree on the outcome. Specifically, two judges felt that a warrant should be necessary for a breathalyzer or a blood test. One judge felt that a warrant should not be necessary for either test.

Breathalyzer Refusal in New Jersey

In New Jersey, you must take a breathalyzer at the request of a police officer. It’s one of the many states to have an implied-consent law. The implied consent law applies to anyone who gets behind the steering wheel of a car. When you start driving, you automatically agree to give a breathalyzer test. If a police officer stops you and asks for one, you must comply. If you don’t, you face penalties for your refusal.

The Supreme Court ruling did change things slightly for New Jersey and all other implied consent states. Before the ruling, many states required chemical tests of blood, breath, or urine. A police officer would threaten penalties if you failed to consent to any of those tests. However, this ruling takes those threats away. The only test that a police officer can require you to take is the breathalyzer. If an officer does threaten you for refusing a blood test, those threats are now empty.

The Penalties

Although you automatically consent to a breathalyzer in New Jersey, you can still choose to refuse the test. If you refuse it, there are penalties. For a first-time offender, the penalties are the following:

  • Seven months to one year license loss or one to two years license loss if the incident occurred in a school zone
  • A $300-$500 fine (or $600-$1000 in a school zone)
  • An Intoxicated Driver Resource Center fee of $230 a day
  • $100 donation to a drunk driving fund
  • $100 to Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Fund
  • $1000 every year for three years
  • $75 to the Neighborhood Services Fund
  • 12 hours of IDRC

Second-time and third-time offenders face harsher penalties. For third-time offenders, the period of license loss is ten years (or 20 for an offense in a school zone). While the fines remain similar, the prospect of losing your license for a decade is scary. It’s clear that New Jersey takes a no nonsense stand against drinking and driving.

If you find yourself facing a drunk driving charge, you need the help of a lawyer. In New Jersey, the stakes are high. Fortunately, the new Supreme Court ruling might help you fight your charge. However, you need the advice of a lawyer before you can take action.

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