Justices set new limits on drunken driving tests

Justices set new limits on drunken driving tests
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court set new limits on state laws that make it a crime for drunken driving suspects to refuse tests measuring their blood alcohol content.  

The court ruled that it is legal to conduct a breath test without a warrant, but not a blood test.


“Because breath tests are significantly less intrusive than blood tests and in most cases amply serve law enforcement interests, we conclude that a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving,” Justice Samuel Alito said in delivering the opinion of the court.

The ruling covered three cases challenging state laws in Minnesota and North Dakota. Three men, all of whom were arrested on drunken driving charges, argued that the state laws violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said warrants should be required for both blood tests and breath tests, while Justice Clarence Thomas said warrants aren’t needed for either test.

“Here, the court lacks even the pretense of attempting to situate breath searches within the narrow and weighty law enforcement needs that have historically justified the limited use of warrantless searches,” Sotomayor said. “I fear that if the court continues down this road, the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirements will become nothing more than a suggestion.”

Thursday’s ruling affects 11 other states with similar laws.