Do police in Florida need a warrant to test for alcohol?

This article looks at how a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling may affect Florida's DUI laws.

Breath and blood tests are two of the most common ways of testing for alcohol consumption among drivers. While police and prosecutors routinely rely on these types of tests to build their cases against suspected drunk drivers, questions about the constitutionality of such tests - especially if they are attained without a warrant - have long been debated. Earlier this year the United States Supreme Court helped settle the question of whether warrantless breath and blood tests were constitutional in a decision that will have a major impact on Florida's own DUI laws.

Blood and breath-test refusal

As USA Today reports, the Supreme Court was tasked with deciding whether blood and breath test refusal laws in North Dakota and Minnesota were unconstitutional. Those laws created criminal penalties for drivers who refused to submit to blood or breath tests. Previous test-refusal laws had generally led to a license suspension, which is an administrative punishment, but no criminal record. As Fox 13 News reports, although Florida was not directly involved in this Supreme Court case, its blood and breath-test refusal laws are similar to Minnesota's, meaning the outcome of the case would have a direct bearing on Florida's DUI laws.

Critics of the law argued that police should obtain a warrant before undertaking blood or breath tests on drivers. Those critics argued that without warrants such tests were a violation of constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure. Supporters of the law, meanwhile, argued that forcing police to obtain a warrant would waste valuable time, during which the alcohol content in a suspect's bloodstream would decrease.

Blood vs. breath

The Supreme Court gave a mixed ruling on the matter. The court did rule that blood withdrawals do require a warrant since withdrawing blood and maintaining a sample of that blood is an inherently intrusive act. The court also pointed out that obtaining a warrant is relatively easy and quick. That means that Florida's law criminalizing the refusal of warrantless blood withdrawals is unconstitutional.

However, the nation's top court had a different opinion when it came to breath tests. The court ruled that warrantless breath tests pass constitutional muster since expelling breath is something everybody does anyway, meaning that a breath test is far less intrusive than a blood test. Interestingly, the court did not rule on the constitutionality of urine tests, meaning that matter may have to be decided in a future case.

Criminal defense

Florida's DUI laws are constantly changing and it can be difficult for most people to keep up with the latest developments. For those who have been charged with an impaired driving-related crime, it is important to talk to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced attorney, who is knowledgeable in the latest legal developments and has a track record of fighting vigorously on behalf of clients, will be in the best position to represent DUI defendants and help them uphold their rights.