Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2178, 579 U.S., 195 L. Ed. 2d 560 (2016).

In Birchfield v. North Dakota. [1] The parties in the case were: (1) Danny Burchfield, petitioner v. the State of North Dakota, (2) William Robert Bernard, Jr., petitioner v. the State of Minnesota, and (3) Steve Michael Beylund, petitioner v. Grant Levi, Director, North Dakota Department of Transportation. [2] The three petitioners were arrested on drunk driving charges and incident to the arrests, warrantless blood alcohol concentration (BAC) tests (either blood and or breath tests) were demanded of the petitioners. [3]

Mr. Birchfield refused to have his blood drawn and because the refusal under North Dakota law was a criminal offense, Mr. Birchfield was charged with a misdemeanor. [3] Mr. Bernard refused to take a BAC breath test and was charged with test refusal in the first degree. [3] Mr. Beylund submitted to the BAC blood test after being warned by police that refusing the BAC test was a crime. After an administrative hearing, Beylund’s driver’s license was suspended for two years. Beylund appealed the ruling, claiming that the police coerced him into consenting to the BAC test when they warned him that refusing to test was a crime. [3] The issue(s) in these three cases are:

  1. Whether the imposition of a criminal penalty for a refusal to submit to a warrantless BAC breath test, pursuant to the state’s implied consent statutes, is not permissible and violates the Fourth Amendment. [4]
  2. Whether the imposition of a criminal penalty for a refusal to submit to a warrantless BAC blood test, pursuant to the state’s implied consent statutes, is not permissible and violates the Fourth Amendment. [4]

[1] Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2160, 579 U.S., 195 L. Ed. 2d 560 (2016).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 2163

[4] Id. at 2162

The procedural posture for Burchfield is an appeal from a State Supreme Court decision affirming a State District Court decision against Mr. Birchfield. [5] The procedural posture for Bernard is an appeal of a State Supreme Court decision affirming a State Court of Appeals reversal of a District Court dismissal. [6] The procedural posture for Beylund is an appeal of a State Supreme Court decision affirming a State District Court decision that affirmed an administrative hearing decision against Mr. Beylund. [6]

The Court held that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving but not warrantless blood tests. [7] Because of this holding, the ruling in Birchfield, No. 14-1468, 2015 ND 6, 858 N.W.2d 302, was reversed and remanded. [8] The ruling in Bernard, No. 14-1470, 859 N.W.2d 762, was affirmed, and the ruling in Beylund, No. 14-1507, 2015 ND 18, 859 N.W.2d 403, was vacated and the case was remanded. [8]

[5] Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2163, 579 U.S., 195 L. Ed. 2d 560 (2016).

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 2172

[8] Id. at 2165

The argument of the majority was:

Under the search incident to arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, breath tests are allowed because they do not implicate significant privacy concerns. The majority continued to argue that the “breath tests involve minimal physical intrusion to capture something that is routinely exposed to the public, reveal a limited amount of information, and do not enhance any embarrassment beyond what the arrest itself causes. Blood tests, however, implicate privacy interests because they are much more physically invasive. They require the piercing of the skin and they produce a sample that can be preserved and used to obtain further information beyond the subject’s blood alcohol level at the time of the test. [9]

In dissent, the argument of the minority was “the laws 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.” [10]

Conclusion

The court’s ruling affects America in that it sets clear precedent to guide state courts when faced with challenges to their respective implied consent statutes. The court’s ruling also has an impact on law enforcement’s DUI enforcement procedures in that the court has settled the issue of police coercion when they warn drunk drivers about the consequences of refusing a BAC test. 

[9] Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2178, 579 U.S., 195 L. Ed. 2d 560 (2016).

[10] Id. at 2179