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Supreme Court rules that it can be a crime to refuse a breathalyzer

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Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP/File

(Read caption) A Missouri sheriff performs a field sobriety test at a checkpoint in Arnold, Mo., in 2013. The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that states can make it a crime to refuse an alcohol breath test.

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What constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure of a suspected drunk driver? The US Supreme Court on Thursday placed limits on both law enforcement and motorists.

The high court ruled that police must obtain a search warrant to perform a blood alcohol test on a motorist, but that states can make it a crime for a motorist suspected of drunk driving to refuse a machine breath test, or Breathalyzer.

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The ruling adds complexity to how the court has instructed states to draft laws against drunk drivers, as the country's judicial system, in combating drunk driving, has tried to balance public safety with personal privacy.

In Thursday's case, Justice Samuel Alito, who delivered the majority 5-to-3 opinion, said breath tests do not implicate "significant privacy concerns." Unlike blood tests, breathing into a Breathalyzer doesn't pierce the skin or leave a biological sample in the government's possession, said Justice Alito.

"Drunk drivers take a grisly toll on the Nation's roads, claiming thousands of lives, injuring many more victims, and inflicting billions of dollars in property damage every [year]," he said.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) praised the court's decision that states can charge motorists who refuse to submit to a breath test with a misdemeanor, calling 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, general counsel for MADD, in a statement.

At least one defense attorney, however, questions the extent to which public safety should negate civil liberties.  

"Drunk driving is a bad thing," Doug Hazelton, a criminal defense lawyer in Bloomington, Minn., who specializes in alcohol-related traffic offenses, tells the Monitor in a phone interview Thursday. "But is the club so big you need to bend the Constitution, and ignore how big other [traffic] crimes are," he says, mentioning speeding and texting while driving.

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Minnesota, where Mr. Hazelton practices, and North Dakota were the two states where Thursday’s case originated. In each state, it is a crime to refuse alcohol testing. The three drivers challenged these implied consent laws, in which motorists implicitly agree to alcohol tests any time they drive. The defendants said these laws violate their constitutional rights.

Americans are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. Before police invade a person's privacy, they must demonstrate to a neutral judge there is probable cause a crime has been committed. If the judge is convinced, they can issue a search warrant.

But the Supreme Court has ruled that under certain circumstances police are free to perform a search without first obtaining a warrant. This was the case in the landmark decision in Schmerber vs. California. In a 1966 ruling, the court found police could draw blood without a search warrant from a motorist they suspected was drunk because the natural metabolism of alcohol could destroy evidence of intoxication.

As cellphones, email, and other instant forms of communications became commonplace – meaning warrants could be obtained in minutes – the court adopted a different opinion. In Missouri v. McNeely in 2013, the court said the body's metabolism of alcohol alone would not qualify as an exigent circumstance.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have required warrants for the breath tests as well, with Justice Sotomayor writing, "The Fourth Amendment prohibits such searches without a warrant, unless exigent circumstances exist in a particular case." Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately that he would have agreed that neither form of test required a warrant.

Drivers in all 50 states can have their licenses revoked for refusing drunken driving tests, according to the Associated Press. The court's ruling affects laws in 11 states that make it a crime for such refusals. In addition to Minnesota and North Dakota, those states are Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia.

Mr. Hazelton, the criminal defense lawyer, expects such a refusal to be a criminal offense to soon be the norm across the country.

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

[Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated the vote result by the Court. The vote was 5-3.]