Ruling could take wind out of Florida DUI fight

By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A U.S. Supreme Court decision might short-circuit a battle about the constitutionality of a Florida law that leads to criminal charges for some drunken-driving suspects who refuse to take breath tests.

The Florida Supreme Court is scheduled Sept. 1 to hear arguments in a Volusia County case challenging the law. But Attorney General Pam Bondi's office filed a motion Monday contending that the arguments should be called off because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month in a Minnesota case.

The issue in both cases has been whether states can impose criminal penalties on suspected drunken drivers who refuse to take breath tests to measure the amount of alcohol in their systems. The plaintiffs in the cases have contended that such laws are unconstitutional unless police get warrants before requiring the breath tests.

But in a June 23 ruling, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court said the Minnesota law did not violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches and seizures.

"Having assessed the effect of BAC (blood alcohol concentration) tests on privacy interests and the need for such tests, we conclude that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving," the majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito said. "The impact of breath tests on privacy is slight, and the need for BAC testing is great."

In the motion Monday filed in the Florida Supreme Court, Bondi's office contended that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling "definitively resolved any questions presented" in the Volusia County case.

The Florida law can lead to misdemeanor charges for drivers who refuse to submit to breath tests if they also have had previous license suspensions for refusing to take such tests.

The Volusia County challenge was filed by William Williams, who was arrested in 2013 on suspicion of driving under the influence and refused to take a breath test. A brief filed by Williams' attorneys said he was later found not guilty on the DUI charge but entered a plea on the issue of refusing to take the breath test. Another court document said Williams' driving record showed that he had previously refused to submit to a breath test.

The Daytona Beach-based 5th District Court of Appeal last year upheld the constitutionality of the Florida law, prompting Williams to take the issue to the state Supreme Court. Justices decided in December to hear the case and later scheduled oral arguments for Sept. 1.

In a brief filed in February, Williams' attorneys wrote that he was not presented with a warrant and that no "exigent circumstances existed" when police sought to impose the test.

"Starting from the premise a search is presumptively unconstitutional, absent a warrant or exigent circumstances, it follows naturally petitioner (Williams) cannot be convicted of a crime for refusing a breath test," the brief said. "Petitioner did not consent to a search; there was no warrant and no record evidence of exigent circumstances. No other exception to the warrant requirement applies to a routine DUI investigation."

News Service of Florida