In a bid to combat drunk driving in the United States, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, June 23 that states can now make it a crime for suspected drunk drivers to refuse a breathalyzer or a machine breath test.
But the high court also placed limits on law enforcers, ruling that the police must first obtain a legitimate search warrant before performing a blood alcohol test on motorists.
As the judiciary tries to balance personal privacy and public safety, both rulings add to the complexity of how the Supreme Court instruct states to draft laws against drunk motorists.
Justice Samuel Alito delivered the 5-to-3 decision in Thursday's case, saying that breath tests do not implicate "significant" concerns in privacy.
He said that unlike blood tests, a breath test does not pierce the skin or leave biological samples in the possession of the government.
The license of drivers in all 50 states who refuse breathing into a breathalyzer will be revoked. States that enact the law are Minnesota, North Dakota, Florida, Indiana, Alaska, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Virginia, Tennessee and Vermont.
Severity Of Drunk Driving
The impact of drunk driving on the country's roads is "grisly," killing thousands of people, injuring more, inflicting billions of dollars in property damage annually, Alito said.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report in August 2015 revealed that about 4.2 million people in the United States drive under the influence of alcohol at least once in a month. This translated to 121 million instances of drunk-driving in the country.
In the state of North Dakota, the situation is much worse. Records show that from 2005 to 2014, there had been about 112,998 people were killed because of drunk driving in the state.
"North Dakota has suffered more than its share of this carnage," state attorneys said.
The law in the state was passed after a drunk driver named Wyatt Klein, who had taken three shots of tequila and seven or eight bottles of beer, struck the car of Allison and Aaron Deutscher, instantly killing them and their daughter. Police said Klein has had a history of drunk driving violations.
Meanwhile, advocates praised the Supreme Court's decision to charge motorists who refuse a breathalyzer test with misdemeanor, emphasizing that breath tests are a "critical tool" to eliminate drunk driving.
"The Court recognized that breath tests are minimally invasive and confirmed that driving is a privilege, not a right," said Adam Vanek, the general counsel for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
However, one defense attorney questioned the extent to which the safety of the public should negate civil liberties.
Criminal defense lawyer Doug Hazelton from Minnesota, who is a specialist in alcohol-related traffic offenses, acknowledges that drunk driving is a "bad thing," but he also adds: "Is the club so big you need to bend the Constitution, and ignore how big other [traffic] crimes are?" Hazelton mentions other offenses such as texting while driving and overspeeding.
Photo: Marvin Kuo | Flickr