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Supreme Court issues opinion on Bowman drunk driving case

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion Thursday morning on three related cases — including one from a Bowman resident — that argued to issue of the constitutionality of law enforcement imposing criminal penalties to refusing blood-alcohol testing.

Pioneer Editor | bmartin@countrymedia.net

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion Thursday morning on three related cases — including one from a Bowman resident — that argued the constitutionality of a law that imposes criminal penalties for not submitting to blood-alcohol testing in the case of drunk driving.

The North Dakota Supreme Court’s 2015 judgment against Steve Beylund of Bowman was vacated by the High Court, which then remanded the case back to the North Dakota court for further proceedings considering the justices’ opinions.

The court concluded in the case, Beylund vs. Levi, that “because breath tests are significantly less intrusive than blood tests and in most cases amply serve law en­forcement interests.” As in all cases involv­ing reasonable searches incident to arrest, a warrant is not needed in this situation, the court offered.

The court ruled that a person cannot be arrested for refusing to submit to a blood-alcohol test, but some states can criminalize the refusal.

Read the court’s full opinion

Beylund was not prosecuted for refusing a test. He submitted to a blood test after police told him that the law required his submission, and his license was then suspended and he was fined in an administrative proceeding.

According to the opinion, motorists “cannot be deemed to have consented” to submit to blood-alcohol testing on fear of committing an offense.

The North Dakota Supreme Court in 2015 held that Beylund’s consent was voluntary on the “erroneous assumption” that the state could permissibly compel both blood and breath tests, according to the opinion. Because voluntari­ness of consent to a search must be “determined from the totality of all the circumstances,” the court now leaves it to the state court on remand to reevaluate Beylund’s consent given the partial inaccuracy of the officer’s advisory.

If the court on remand finds that Beylund did not voluntarily con­sent, it would have to address whether the evidence obtained in the search must be suppressed when the search was carried out pursuant to a state statute, the opinion stated, which was delivered by Justice Samuel Alito.

“The laws at issue in the present cases, which make it a crime to refuse to submit to a BAC test, are designed to provide an incen­tive to cooperate in such cases, and we conclude that they serve a very important function,” Alito stated in the opinion.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan concurred with the court’s opinion. Justices Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Clarence Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Sotomayor argued that such cases should be decided on a case-by-case basis.

“The compromise the Court reaches today is not a good one,” Thomas wrote in his separate opinion. “By deciding that some (but not all) warrantless tests revealing the blood alcohol concentration of an arrested driver are constitutional, the Court contorts the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.”

When Bowman resident Steve Beylund was arrested in 2013 on the suspicion of drunk driving, he refused to submit to a blood-alcohol test. It was only after he was told that his refusal was a crime that he took the test, which came back over the legal limit.

His driving privilege was suspended for two years.

Beylund attempted to appeal the suspension to the N.D. Dept. of Transportation, Bowman County District Court and the N.D. Supreme Court.

Each declined his appeal.

The High Court heard oral testimony in April from Beylund’s attorney, consolidated with similar cases from Morton County and Minnesota.

The Pioneer will have a full story on this in next week’s edition.

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