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Suprme Court weighs the constitutionality of breath test laws

Drivers in Georgia who are suspected of DUI do not face separate criminal charges for refusing to submit to a breath or blood test ordered by a police officer, but motorists in Minnesota, North Dakota and 11 other states do. Law enforcement agencies in these states say that mandatory breath test laws deter drunk drivers and save lives, but critics say the measures are unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court weighed the merits of these arguments on April 20 as it heard from attorneys representing North Dakota, Minnesota and drivers from the two states who were charged with crimes after refusing to take a breath test.

The justices provided observers with few clues as to how they may eventually rule. Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that the criminal sanctions imposed in states like Minnesota and North Dakota were not that far removed from the fines and driver's license suspensions meted out in other states. Another justice that seemed sympathetic to the states was Justice Elena Kagan who responded to Fourth Amendment arguments by pointing out that breath tests were not at all invasive.

However, many of the justices wondered aloud why it was so difficult for police to obtain search warrants before demanding a breath test. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that magistrates are often available to law enforcement around the clock, and Justice Stephen Breyer, after learning that most breath tests were performed at police stations, asked why delaying the process for a few minutes to make a phone call was such a hurdle.

The results of breath or blood tests are usually the most compelling pieces of evidence in a drunk driving case, but they may be challenged in some situations by criminal defense attorneys. Blood test results may be questioned if the sample used was handled improperly or a definitive chain of custody cannot be established, and breath test results may be inaccurate if the machine used was not properly calibrated.

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