December 28, 2015
Supreme Court to Address Constitutional Protections for DWI Defendants
There are carve-outs to traditional constitutional rights applicable in Pennsylvania DWI cases. For example, while courts have held checkpoints are searches and seizures performed with no warrant, checkpoints are still permitted because of the strong interest in preventing DWI accidents.
DWI defendants should be entitled to the same protections the constitution provides everyone else, but lawmakers and police routinely abridge their rights. Now, the Supreme Court will rule on a case that could provide stronger protections to DWI defendants or that could significantly limit their rights further.
Supreme Court to Rule on Rights of DWI Defendants
The Supreme Court will address the issue of whether states can make it a crime for defendants to refuse to undergo a blood test, even if police have obtained no warrants.
The two major cases which have come before the Supreme Court on this issue are Bernard v. Minnesota and Birchfield v. North Dakota. North Dakota and Minnesota are among 13 states that impose criminal penalties if defendants won’t agree to allow their blood to be drawn to measure their Blood Alcohol Concentration.
The trend towards criminalizing refusal of blood tests has been growing and expanding, so the decision by the Supreme Court will affect DWI defendants throughout the United States whose states currently have criminal laws or whose states may pass criminal laws in the future.
In 2013 in Missouri v. McNeely, the court determined police needed a warrant or needed consent before forcing a defendant to undergo a blood test. The problem is, these criminal laws significantly undermine the protections the court gave DWI defendants in McNeely.
One recent case in Hawaii illustrates the problem with making it a crime to refuse a blood test. The driver was asked to consent to have his blood tested, although police had no warrant (as McNeely would have required). The defendant at first refused the blood test, but police explained he would be charged with a crime and could face 30-days imprisonment. In light of this information, he gave his “consent,” but of course his consent was coerced.
The Hawaii Supreme Court held the law was unconstitutional and dismissed the defendant’s DWI conviction based on the blood test- which had been conducted with no warrant and without actual voluntary consent.
The Hawaii decision, of course, only protects defendants within Hawaii. Other defendants whose states have criminalized blood test refusals or whose states criminalize blood test refusals in the future could still be subject to this coerced consent and are not fully protected by McNeely’s requirement police get a warrant for blood tests.
Hopefully, the Supreme Court will rule it is unconstitutional to impose criminal penalties for blood test refusal, which would protect DWI defendants nationwide. If the Supreme Court does not rule it is unconstitutional, more states may undermine McNeely’s warrant requirements by giving the defendants the choice between consenting to incriminate themselves in a blood test or going to jail.