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U.S. Supreme Court hears mandatory breath test cases

Tennessee is one of the 13 states where motorists who have been suspected of driving under the influence can face criminal sanctions for their refusal to take a breath test. Motorists from North Dakota and Minnesota filed lawsuits challenging mandatory breath test laws, but their efforts to convince district and appeals court judges were unsuccessful. However, the motorists did not give up, and arguments made by their attorneys were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 20.

Reports indicate that the justices were torn on the issue. Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that breath tests were minimally invasive and could save lives, but Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that upholding mandatory breath test laws would continue to make criminals out of motorists for merely exercising their constitutional rights. Only Justice Samuel Alito was unwavering on the issue. Alito supported the positions of North Dakota and Minnesota throughout, and he observed that drivers generally refuse breath tests because they fear drunk driving charges and not because they are making some sort of constitutional stand.

The attorneys defending mandatory breath test laws did make some convincing arguments, and Justice Elena Kagan conceded that police officers are usually working against the clock in drunk driving situations because blood alcohol levels will generally fall in the time it would take to secure a search warrant. Chief Justice John Roberts was less sympathetic to law enforcement. He pointed out that police officers are not permitted to conduct warrantless searches of cellphones or other electronic devices even though distracted drivers can be every bit as dangerous as drunk drivers.

Criminal defense attorneys may advise their clients to obey the instructions given by police officers. Most criminal cases are settled by some sort of negotiated plea agreement, and securing lenient treatment for defendants who have behaved belligerently to law enforcement authorities can sometimes be a challenge for their attorneys.

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