Florida Supreme Court To Debate U.S. Constitution And Alcohol Level Tests

Jun 3, 2016

Questions about the constitutionality of alcohol tests are being raised on a state and national level. The Florida Supreme Court announced it will hear arguments in a case from Volusia County about the state's Refusal to Submit law.

In October 2013, an officer pulled over William Williams for suspicion of driving under the influence. When asked to take a breath test, he refused. The arresting officer did not have a warrant.

According to court documents, Williams received five traffic violations, including a citation for Refusal to Submit.

In Florida law, the first refusal to a breath, blood or urine test results in a one year suspension of a driver's license.

According to the Refusal to Submit law, if the driver refuses one of these tests again in a different circumstance, the driver's license is suspended for 18 months and he or she receives a first degree misdemeanor.

Williams' lawyers say that the Refusal to Submit law violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal upheld the law last year.

Kristen Allen from Mothers Against Drunk Driving says if the Florida Supreme Court rules with Williams, it would put Florida law enforcement in a bind.

"It ties the law enforcement's hands," she says. "We're talking about unreasonable searches and seizures. If we're saying a breath test is a search or seizure, it's a reasonable search."

There's also time to consider.

Chief Brett Railey, president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, says waiting to get a warrant for an alcohol level test can compromise results.

"I believe that a breath test taken as close to contemporaneous with the driving actions of a person suspected of impaired driving is [the] best evidence," he says, "not waiting until a warrant can be obtained at a later point and then trying to extrapolate back to the time of driving."

However, there are some who believe that this law could escalate to further problems.

"His Fourth Amendment rights are targeted by that statute," says Jeremy Cohen, a lawyer with experience in DUI cases.

He says the Florida Supreme Court could find the law to be narrowly tailored, meaning that because it only applies with people who have a record of refusing alcohol tests, the law wouldn't violate the Constitution.

But Cohen is concerned that decision could create a snowball effect.

"As individuals who have constitutional rights, the more you allow the rights of those warrantless seizure to chip away, the less and less rights we have," Cohen says. "If it's applied beyond Mr. Williams or beyond someone who's previously refused, then all of us are in jeopardy and all of us have lost rights in the process."

Cases like this have also taken the national stage.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments from cases in Minnesota and South Dakota over the constitutionality of criminally charging someone for refusing to take an alcohol level test.

According to NPR, Florida is one of a dozen states with laws that go beyond the suspension of a license for refusal.

The Florida Supreme Court will hear Williams' case Sept 1.

"When these things kind of slide through," Cohen says, "nobody's really paying attention and all of the sudden it's like, where did my rights go?"