Birchfield v. North Dakota

PETITIONER: Danny Birchfield
RESPONDENT: State of North Dakota
LOCATION: Morton County Sheriff’s Department

DOCKET NO.: 14-1468
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: North Dakota Supreme Court

CITATION: 579 US (2016)
GRANTED: Dec 11, 2015
ARGUED: Apr 20, 2016
DECIDED: Jun 23, 2016

Charles A. Rothfeld - for the petitioners
Ian H. Gershengorn - Deputy Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae supporting the respondents
Thomas R. McCarthy - for the respondents in 14-468 & 14-1507
Kathryn Keena - for the respondent in 14-1470

Facts of the case

Danny Birchfield drove into a ditch in Morton County, North Dakota. When police arrived on the scene, they believed Birchfield was intoxicated. Birchfield failed both the field sobriety tests and the breath test. He was arrested, but he refused to consent to a chemical test. Birchfield was charged with a misdemeanor for refusing to consent to a chemical test in violation of state law. He moved to dismiss the charge and claimed that the state law violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. In a similar case, police were called to the South St. Paul boat launch where three men were attempting to pull their boat out of the water and onto their truck. William Robert Bernard, Jr., admitted he had been drinking and had the truck keys in his hands, but he denied driving the truck and refused to perform a field sobriety test. He was arrested on suspicion of driving while impaired (DWI) and taken to the police station, where he refused to consent to a chemical test in violation of Minnesota state law. Bernard was charged with two counts of first-degree test refusal pursuant to state law. In a separate incident, Steve Beylund consented to a blood alcohol to test to confirm he was driving under the influence after being informed it was a criminal offense in North Dakota to refuse a blood alcohol test. The test confirmed he was over the legal limit, and Beylund was charged with driving under the influence.

All three men challenged the state statutes criminalizing refusal to submit to a chemical test and argued that the statutes violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures when there was no probable cause that would support a warrant for the test. Both the Supreme Court of Minnesota and the Supreme Court of North Dakota determined that criminalizing the refusal to submit to a chemical test was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.


In the absence of a warrant, may a state statute criminalize an individual’s refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test?

Media for Birchfield v. North Dakota

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 20, 2016 in Birchfield v. North Dakota

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 23, 2016 in Birchfield v. North Dakota

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

And Justice Alito has the opinions of the court in case 14-1468, Birchfield versus North Dakota and the consolidated cases.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

These are three cases; Birchfield versus North Dakota, Bernard versus Minnesota and Beylund versus Levi.

They concern a new strategy that several states have adopted to combat the problem of drunk driving.

All states have long made it a crime to drive a car with a blood alcohol concentration or BAC that exceeds a certain percentage.

And because states need to measure drivers’ BAC to enforce such laws, all states also have what are called implied consent laws, which require suspected drunk drivers to cooperate with BAC testing, usually through a Breathalyzer test or a blood draw.

In the past the standard penalty for refusing such a test was revocation of a driver's license.

The laws at issue in these cases, however, increase the penalty and make it a crime to refuse a BAC test.

All three petitioners here were arrested for drunk driving and asked to take such a test.

The first Danny Birchfield was asked to submit to a blood test, he refused.

The second William Robert Bernard Jr. was asked to submit to a breath test, and he also refused.

The third, Steve Michael Beylund was asked to submit to a blood test.

Unlike the other petitioners he agreed to take the test after being told that refusal would be a crime.

In none of the three cases did the police have a search warrant authorizing the test that they demanded.

The first two petitioners Birchfield and Bernard were criminally prosecuted for refusing to take the test.

The third Beylund was prosecuted because his blood test revealed a BAC far in excess of the legal limit.

North Dakota Supreme Court upheld the convictions of Birchfield and Beylund and the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Bernard's conviction.

We granted certiorari in all three cases.

Success for each of the petitioners depends on the proposition that the criminal law ordinarily may not compel a motorist to submit to a blood alcohol concentration test unless the police first obtain a search warrant.

In our decision today we agree with that proposition insofar as it relates to blood draws but not when it comes to breath tests.

This Court's Fourth Amendment cases have held that warrantless searches are generally unconstitutional unless a recognized exception to the warrant requirement applies.

In today's decision we focus on how one of these recognized exceptions, the exception for searches incident to law for arrest applies in drunk driving cases.

Since the nation's founding, police have been permitted, without obtaining a warrant, to search a person who has been lawfully arrested.

Among other things this kind of search allows police to collect evidence showing that the arrestee committed the crime for which he was arrested.

Of course, the kind of search we deal with here, a test of the arrestee's breath or blood, was not known when the Fourth Amendment was ratified.

We determine whether searches like this are permissible searches incident to an arrest by weighing the degree to which they intrude on the arrestee's privacy against the degree to which they promote legitimate governmental interests.

Starting with the privacy side of the balance we conclude that breath tests constitute very little intrusion on privacy interests.

They are not painful or inherently embarrassing and they collect a substance that the arrestee would otherwise give up through the normal process of breathing.

Blood tests are significantly more intrusive.

They require piercing the skin of the person arrested and they extract blood, a substance that the person would normally retain.

On the other side of the balance, states have a compelling interest in fighting drunk driving which claims thousands of lives every year and injures countless more.