Traffic Crimes

Most, if not all, states have adopted “implied consent” laws where drivers may be tested if police have probable cause to suspect they have been driving while intoxicated. Drivers may withdraw consent and refuse to take a test, subject to penalties. In Birchfield v. North Dakota (2016) the Supreme Court held that generally police must obtain a warrant to require a blood test (versus a breath test) where officers have probable cause.

But what if a driver is unconscious and unable to withdraw consent to a blood test (and unable to take a breath test)? Wisconsin and 28 other states allow warrantless blood draws of unconscious drivers where police have probable cause to suspect drunk driving.

The question the Supreme Court will decide in Mitchell v. Wisconsin is whether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.

In Byrd v. United States the Supreme Court held unanimously that the driver of a rental car generally has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the rental car even if he or she isn’t listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement.   

A state trooper pulled Terrance Byrd over for a possible traffic infraction. Byrd’s name was not on the rental agreement. He told the officer a friend had rented it. Officers searched the car and found 49 bricks of cocaine and body armor.

While the Fourth Amendment prohibits warrantless searches, generally probable cause a crime has been committed is enough to search a car. To claim a violation of Fourth Amendment rights a defendant must have a “legitimate expectation of privacy in the premises” searched.  

At the Supreme Court’s “long conference,” where it decides which petitions—that have been piling up all summer—to accept, the Court agreed to hear two unrelated cases involving car searches.

Per the Fourth Amendment police officers generally need a warrant to search a car. However, per the automobile exception officers may search a car that is “readily mobile” without a warrant if officers have probable cause to believe they will find contraband or a crime has been committed.

In Manuel v. City of Joliet the Supreme Court held 6-2 that even after “legal process” (appearing before a judge) has occurred a person may bring a Fourth Amendment claim challenging pretrial detention. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief arguing that malicious prosecution claims cannot be brought under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court didn’t address this issue in its decision.

Elijah Manuel was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance even though a field test and a lab test indicated his pills weren’t illegal drugs. A county court judge further detained Manuel based on a complaint inaccurately reporting the results of the field and lab tests. Forty-eight days later Manuel was released when another laboratory test cleared him.  

In Birchfield v. North Dakota the Supreme Court held 5-3 that states may criminalize an arrestee’s refusal to take a warrantless breath test. If states criminalize the refusal to take a blood test police must obtain a warrant. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief arguing that states should be able to criminalize warrantless refusal to consent when a person is arrested upon suspicion of drunken driving.   

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 15 states currently criminalize refusal to consent. Criminal penalties typically include fines and jail time.    

State implied consent statutes criminalizing a person’s refusal to take a warrantless chemical blood alcohol test upon suspicion of drunk driving are constitutional, argues the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) in a Supreme Court amicus brief.

All 50 states have adopted implied consent laws requiring motorists as a condition of driving in the state to consent to a blood alcohol content (BAC) test if they are suspected of drunk driving. If motorists refuse to consent typically their driver’s license is temporarily suspended. NCSL reports that 15 states also currently criminalize refusal to consent. Criminal penalties typically include fines and jail time. 

All 50 states have adopted implied consent laws requiring motorists as a condition of driving in the state to consent to a blood alcohol content (BAC) test if they are suspected of drunk-driving.

The Supreme Court will decide whether state statutes criminalizing a person’s refusal to take a chemical BAC test where police have not obtained a warrant are unconstitutional. Thirteen states criminalize the refusal to take a warrantless BAC test. 

In Missouri v. McNeely (2013) the Supreme Court held that police generally have to obtain a warrant to conduct a BAC. So the argument goes, it is unconstitutional to criminalize the refusal to take a BAC test if a warrant was required to conduct the test but not obtained.

The three decisions that the Supreme Court has agreed to review all upheld the state statutes.

In a 6-3 decision in Rodriguez v. United States the Supreme Court held that a dog sniff conducted after a completed traffic stop violates the Fourth Amendment. 

Officer Struble pulled over Dennys Rodriguez after he veered onto the shoulder of the highway and jerked back on the road. Officer Struble ran a records check on Rodriguez, then questioned his passenger and ran a records check on the passenger and called for backup, and next wrote Rodriguez a warning ticket. Seven or eight minutes passed between Officer Struble issuing the warning, back up arriving, and Officer Struble’s drug-sniffing dog alerting for drugs.  Rodriguez argued that prolonging the completed traffic stop without reasonable suspicion in order to conduct the dog sniff violated the Fourth Amendment.

Are your state’s traffic laws up-to-date?  If they aren’t consider what might happen…

In Heien v. North Carolina a police officer pulled over a car because he thought that North Carolina law required that motor vehicles have two working brake lights.  It turns out the officer was wrong.  The North Carolina Court of Appeals concluded that state law requires motor vehicles to only have one...

If you follow Supreme Court Fourth Amendment cases you know that seeing unusual line ups of Justice isn’t unusual at all.  Justice Scalia siding with the criminal defendant is usual though.  In Prado Navarette v. California Justice Scalia dissents with the three female Justices from a majority opinion that he claims “serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail.”

In this case an anonymous 911 caller reported that a vehicle had run her off the road.  The Court held 5-4 that a police stop complied with the Fourth Amendment because, under the totality of the circumstances, the officers had reasonable suspicion that the driver was intoxicated.  When police stopped the Navarette brothers they smelled marijuana.  A search of the vehicle revealed 30 pounds of marijuana.    

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