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Illinois Supreme Court Upholds Law Requiring Drivers to Take Sobriety Tests

Woman using breath alcohol analyzer in the car

Criminal defendants and suspects have rights protected by the federal and state constitutions.  For example, the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution protect citizens against unreasonable search and seizure of themselves and their property.  Courts in different jurisdictions across the country have had different views as to how those protections apply to individuals suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI), including what sobriety tests a law enforcement officer can force a DUI suspect to undergo without first obtaining a warrant.  The Illinois Supreme Court recently upheld a law that grants police officers significant leeway in requiring suspects to submit to blood alcohol concentration (BAC) testing.  Learn more about the recent decision below and reach out to a seasoned Chicago DUI defense attorney if you have been arrested or charged with a crime in Illinois.

Illinois Supreme Court says police can force drivers to take blood, breath, or bodily fluid tests

Under current Illinois law, a police officer can essentially force a DUI suspect to undergo blood, breath, or bodily fluids (such as urine) testing for drugs or alcohol so long as the officer has probable cause to believe a crime has been committed (i.e., driving under the influence).  In People v. Eubanks, a defendant had caused a fatal accident.  An officer requested a blood test without a warrant, which the defendant refused.  The officer took the defendant to a hospital and had the defendant’s blood forcibly drawn, and the defendant was then threatened with a catheter if he did not submit to a urine test.

The First District Appellate Court held that the applicable law was facially unconstitutional.  The Illinois Supreme Court, on the other hand, disagreed.  The Court focused on the issue of warrantless searches where exigent circumstances exist–that is where immediate action is necessary to prevent the destruction of evidence (such as the natural metabolizing of blood alcohol).  The rule here, which requires only that an officer has probable cause to believe a driver was operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, essentially permits warrantless BAC testing in any given case.  Blood alcohol levels are generally always “disappearing” evidence, so exigent circumstances nearly always exist. 

The Court emphasized, however, that while the rule generally permits warrantless testing, it does not permit warrantless testing in all cases, even if the statute appears to be so written. For instance, the rule would not apply when a blood draw is solely for general law enforcement purposes and where an officer could not reasonably judge that applying for a warrant would interfere with other pressing needs or duties.  The limitation is based on prior court precedent.

The Illinois Supreme Court did find that the law was unconstitutional as applied to the specific defendant because of the delay in obtaining the testing.  The officer had enough time to get a proper warrant to secure the test; nearly seven hours passed between the arrest and the eventual blood and urine tests.  The officer waited so long that the defendant’s BAC had dropped to zero, even though he had admitted to drinking alcohol.  The officer’s delay belied the State’s claim of exigent circumstances–surely some officer on the case could have asked for a warrant in that time.

The United States Supreme Court also recently upheld warrantless sobriety tests

In a decision issued this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrated that it, too, favors sobriety tests over possible civil rights objections.  In the case of Mitchell v. Wisconsin, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that police were within their authority to administer a warrantless blood alcohol concentration (BAC) test to a defendant who was unconscious.  The majority opinion made clear that, under federal precedent, the “exigent circumstances rule almost always permits a blood test without a warrant.”  An unconscious driver may qualify as exigent circumstances sufficient to permit an invasive search such as a blood test without a warrant.

The decision is a reminder that criminal defendants, and DUI suspects in particular, should not expect a judicial expansion of civil rights protections at the federal level, given the current makeup of the Supreme Court.  If criminal defendants are to be afforded more protection, action from the legislature is necessary.

Effective Illinois Criminal Defense Attorneys in Chicago and Carol Stream

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges in Illinois, protect your future and your family by seeking representation from skilled, dedicated, and compassionate Chicagoland criminal defense lawyers.  Contact the Carol Stream offices of Johnson, Westra, Broecker, Whittaker & Newitt at 630-665-9600.

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