Criminal Penalties for Refusing a Breath Test—Are They Coming to Texas?

By November 11, 2016DWI

Can Texas Charge a Person with a Crime for Refusing a Breath or Blood Test During a DWI Stop?

In Texas, when a person refuses to provide a breath or blood specimen when being arrested for alleged drunk driving offense, their driver’s license is typically suspended. But, can a state have a law that additionally makes it a crime to refuse a breath or blood test? In Birchfield v. North Dakota, the United States Supreme Court held that a state can attach a criminal penalty to those that refuse to submit to a warrantless breath test but they cannot for those that refuse to submit to a warrantless blood test.

In a previous blog post we discussed the oral arguments that took place in this case and briefed the three cases facing the court, Birchfield , Bernard and Beylund.  Birchfield had been criminally prosecuted for refusing a warrantless blood draw; Bernard had been criminally prosecuted for refusing a warrantless breath test; and Beylund, while not criminally prosecuted for refusing a test, submitted to a blood test after the officer told him the law required it. Birchfield v. North Dakota 579 U.S. ____ (2016).

U.S. Supreme Court Issues Opinion in Birchfield Upholding Criminal Penalty for Breath Test Refusal (But Not Blood)

SUPREME COURT DECISION – Birchfield v. North Dakota

First, the Court determined whether warrantless breath and blood tests were proper searches incident to arrest for drunk driving. The Court held that since “breath tests are significantly less intrusive than blood tests” and in most cases adequately serve law enforcement interests, the Fourth Amendment permits a warrantless breath test but not blood test as a search incident to arrest for drunk driving.

Next, the Court addressed the argument that when making the decision to drive on a public road, drivers are deemed to have given consent to submit to a blood test. Applying the Fourth Amendment reasonableness standard, the Court held that “motorists cannot be deemed to have consented to submit to a blood test on pain of committing a criminal offense.” Birchfield, 579 U.S. ____ (2016).

Finally, the Court applies these legal conclusions to the three cases.  In Birchfield, the Court held that the judgment affirming his conviction must be reversed because the warrantless blood draw was not a justified search incident to arrest and he was thus, threatened with an unlawful search. In Bernard, the Court held that Bernard had no right to refuse the breath test because it was a proper search incident to arrest. In Beylund, the Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the state court to reconsider Beylund’s consent given the partial inaccuracy of the officer’s statement that “the law required it.”

In conclusion, the Supreme Court held that States may enact laws that attach criminal penalties to the refusal to submit to a breath test but they may not enact such laws that will apply to refusal to submit a blood test. So what does this mean for Texas? Well, while we do not currently have laws in place that attaches a criminal penalty to refusal of a breathalyzer, the State could enact a law that makes it a crime to refuse to provide a warrantless breath test incident to arrest of drunk driving.

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