The Supreme Court heard the oral argument on April 20 and issued a decision on June 23, 2016 in the case of Birchfield v. North Dakota involving in a single opinion under “Birchfield” as a collective name three separate cases in a single ruling: Birchfield v. North Dakota, Bernard v. Minnesota, and Beylund v. North Dakota.There was distinction among the petitioners Danny Birchfield, William Robert Bernard, Jr., and Steve Michael Beylund Birchfield had refused to take the blood test when he was stopped by the police claiming that a warrant was required for such intrusive search. Bernard similarly refused a search without a warrant. In fact, Bernard was criminally prosecuted prior to the Supreme Court hearing. Beylund consented to the blood test, and then argued that the finding of the test should be invalidated.
The cases have in common the application of the Fourth Amendment to roadside breath and alcohol testing conducted by the police, that is, the constitutional status of breath and blood alcohol testing as the basis of criminal punishment in the light of a driver’s unwillingness to undergo the test without warrant. Birchfield, Bernard and Beylund contested the testing on the basis that such searches would violate their rights under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable searches. In effect the Court had to rule on three closely related issues within the context of Fourth Amendment: first whether the blood test could be taken by the police even without a warrant. Second, whether that refusal would lead to additional penalties being assessed according to State DUI laws, and finally whether breath tests carry the same penalty as blood test when it is refused by the driver.
Before reaching SCOTUS, Birchfield was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and refusing to submit to a roadside test. Birchfield moved to dismiss this charge claiming Fourth Amendment rights, but the trial court denied Birchfield’s motion and the Supreme Court of North Dakota agreed with the lower court based on the reasoning that Birchfield had implied consent by using North Dakota roads in the first place. Birchfield appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on December 11, 2015, and joined Bernard v. Minnesota and Beylund v. North Dakota in the case under consideration.
Justice Samuel Alito in reviewing the history of the issue involving search incidents compared the Birchfield case to a decision involving the search of a cellphone which was infact found unconstitutional. Justice Alito then suggested a decision based on the principle of a balancing test between privacy interests of the person and legitimate police interests, noting how important it is to look at privacy concerns when no guidance is to be had by the original framers of the Fourth Amendment concerning modern technology, In this light, a breath test is minimally intrusive without any meaningful privacy concerns. Justice Alito called forceful attention to the enormous toll drunk drivers take causing in the end all fifty states to enact laws of “implied consent” as enforceable on state roads, with very tough penalties on drivers under the influence. Justice Alito finally framed the issue as the problem of the relative weight of the penalty for refusing the test which is relatively light, compared to the punishment for drunk driving. In sum, a driver may choose to refuse on the basis of escaping a stiffer penalty. Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented on the basis that even if a search is desirable, it may be rapidly obtained by the police and should not be dispensed with.
The Court concluded on the basis of how intrusive each type of search is like that breath tests may be admitted, while blood tests must be administered only with a search warrant and under the condition of lawful custodial arrest. At the same time, the court held that “there must be a limit to the consequences to which motorists may be deemed to have consented by virtue of a decision to drive on the public roads.” Issuing criminal penalties for refusal was firmly rejected on the basis of the previously mentioned balance of reasonableness. In the specific cases under consideration, the Birchfield decision was reversed on the basis of the drawing of blood deemed inappropriate. By contrast, it was held in Bernard, who refused a less invasive breath tes, had no right to refuse. The Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case of Beylund on the basis of a police statement that needed to be clarified by a lower court.
The Court ruling on this case had enormous influence as the many articles analyzing the effect of this ruling in various states would testify. As an example, at the time of the ruling in Pennsylvania, a particular DL-26 form is given to a suspected drunken driver who is told that he or she would not have a right to refuse the test with the penalty that their license would be suspended for at least 12 months. Further, some versions of the form stated that they could face additional criminal penalties for refusal. The Birchfield Court ruled against such intrusive blood test and such coercive forms. The form was changed. But at the same time there is concern that “the Supreme Court has been increasingly willing to dispense with the Fourth Amendment’s warrant clause” thereby reducing our freedoms. What Judge Alito called a balance is praiseworthy. The passing years will show whether it was actually achieved. Ours is still a land under lawful justice, whether it is a conservative or liberal court.