For many, a DUI (driving under the influence) arrest is a horrifying, humiliating experience. Reaching the legal limit can take but a drink or two—particularly for drinkers with a small frame and those imbibing on an empty stomach. But while getting intoxicated can happen in minutes, the impact of a DUI conviction can be lifelong, affecting one’s future employment or a post-secondary education.
Right now, your chances of getting a DUI are greatly enhanced by what are known as “implied consent” rules, which have been enacted in all 50 states. These rules create a consensual link between one’s acceptance of a state-issued drivers’ license and the subsequent waiver of any objections to a breathalyzer test upon suspicion of DUI. In other words, obtaining a drivers’ license automatically implies consent to blood-alcohol content (BAC) testing if arrested on suspicion of DUI.
However, well-established constitutional criminal procedure standards require a bit more than “suspicion” to support obtaining a warrant (by way of the Fourth Amendment). And so if we consider a breathalyzer test to be akin to a warrant, then is this “implied consent” constitutional?
A case known as Gaede v. Illinois has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court to answer that question. The outcome may mean major changes for how DUIs can be established and enforced.
Details of Gaede v. Illinois
The events underlying the Gaede case began in February, 2012, when Christopher Gaede sideswiped an unattended parked car while operating his motorcycle. According to witnesses, Gaede fled the scene. He was later intercepted by several county law enforcement officers who conducted three field sobriety tests on him, all of which he failed. Based on this evidence, officers placed Gaede under arrest and requested he submit to a chemical blood alcohol test – which he refused.
Under Illinois law, refusal to submit to a breathalyzer not only results in the automatic 12-month suspension of one’s driving privileges, but is also admissible against the driver at a subsequent DUI trial. In Gaede’s case, he was found guilty of DUI based—in part—on his refusal to submit to a breathalyzer. On appeal, Gaede asserted a Fourth Amendment argument against the state’s reliance on implied consent laws, contending that officers should have to rely on a warrant to collect breath or blood evidence, not an implied consent form signed months or years ago at the DMV.
The State of Illinois made several key points in its arguments in support of implied consent laws. First and foremost, it aligned the case with those decided in years past by the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly pointing to Missouri v. McNeely, which held that placing a limitation on warrantless blood testing would undermine states’ interests in preventing drunk driving. The Court further held in McNeely that the summary 12-month suspension of driving privileges serves an obvious “legitimate purpose” and would not be held unconstitutional.
DUI vs. the Constitution
The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful searches and seizures by the government. As the basis for his argument against warrantless blood or breath testing, Gaede’s attorneys asserted that warrantless blood testing is an unconstitutional invasion of the accused’s body—a notion “our Founding Fathers could have [never] imagined….” They further cited an applicable Illinois state case holding that a state cannot physically compel individuals to submit to chemical testing, even if urgent circumstances exist.
In sum, Gaede’s lawyers argued that—just as in any other scenario—police should be required to obtain a warrant prior to collecting biological evidence, and any implied consent rendered when applying for driving privileges is insufficient in light of our mutual freedom from unlawful searches and seizures.
The case is not set for oral argument until later in 2016. However, if the Court sides with Gaede, implied consent laws could be invalidated everywhere—and blood alcohol testing refusal may be a valid and non-consequential option for anyone arrested on suspicion of DUI.
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