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Supreme Court of the United States

Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016).


The Supreme Court Case Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016) sets an important precedent in the area of Driving under the Influence (DUI) for several reasons. Prior to Birchfield v. North Dakota, many states had “Implied Consent” laws as a condition of one’s ability to drive. Implied Consent laws require a driver to submit to a chemical test[1] should they be arrested for DUI. Many states have strict laws which punish those who refused to submit to a chemical test. While the Court acknowledged the fact that a state has a duty and a right to enforce DUI laws, the issue before the Court is whether or not the government’s enforcement of DUI laws was at the expense of the rights of the accused. [2] The question to be answered is, “Can a state statute criminalize one’s refusal to submit to a warrantless chemical test?”


Birchfield v. North Dakota[3] encompasses three separate cases which involve arrests for DUI and subsequent testing. While the facts are different, the three separate cases, when reviewed together, offer a good summation of possible outcomes.

The first case involved Danny Birchfield, who was arrested following an on scene DUI investigation. Birchfield was subsequently arrested and declined to take a blood test. Under North Dakota law, a refusing driver can be charged with a separate count of “refusal.” Birchfield was charged and he initially pled guilty, however, he articulated his Fourth Amendment rights were violated on the basis that state law criminalizes one’s refusal. Birchfield’s claim was denied by the State District Court and Birchfield was subsequently sentenced.[4] The conviction of the State District Court was affirmed by the North Dakota Supreme Court.[5]

The second case involved William Robert Bernard, Jr. who was subsequently arrested following a DUI investigation. A request to submit to a breath test was declined and Bernard was charged with refusal to submit to a chemical test, as per Minnesota State Law. The State District Court dismissed Bernard’s refusal charge based on the opinion that such warrantless searches are a violation of one’s Fourth Amendment. The decision of the State District Court was reversed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.[6] The decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals was upheld by the Minnesota State Supreme Court.[7]

The third case involved Steve Michael Beylund who was arrested at the conclusion of a DUI investigation. Beylund was transported to a local hospital where he was advised of the state’s Chemical Test Admonition. This Admonition advises the arrestee of the criminal sanctions for refusing to submit to a chemical test. Beylund did submit to a blood test, which revealed that his BAC level was over the limit. Beylund was ultimately convicted and his license was suspended. Beylund appealed the suspension due to the fact his submission to the warrantless blood test was obtained through coercion, which was rejected by a District Court.[8] The suspension was affirmed by the North Dakota Supreme Court, based in part on the decision rendered in the Birchfield decision.[9]

It should be noted that in each of these cases the Plaintiffs were not contesting the actual DUI, but the fact that they faced criminalization for not consenting to searches. The exception is the case of Bernard, where the State Court initially found in the Plaintiff’s favor and dismissed his conviction on grounds of a Constitutional violation.


Birchfield v. North Dakota encompasses three separate cases from two different states, each with different events that led to different outcomes. The Court’s decision is quite concise and is separated into two holdings; one for breath tests and one for blood tests.

The Court, in a seven to one decision, found that a warrantless blood test, incident to arrest, is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

In a six to two decision the Court found that a warrantless breath test, incident to arrest, is permissible under the Fourth Amendment.

Discussion of Prior Law/Legal Background

One of the primary factors in deciding this case was an assessment of how past Court cases apply to warrantless searches.[10] The Court acknowledged, that while the Fourteenth Amendment does not specify when a warrant is needed, a warrant is generally needed.[11] In Michigan v. Tyler,[12] the Court affirmed a warrant is not needed if exigent circumstances, such as an emergency, exist. While there has been at least one past case where an instance of DUI may fall under a warrantless exception for exigent circumstances,[13] the natural metabolism of alcohol from one’s system does not guarantee an exception under the Warrantless Search Doctrine, as discussed in a separate case.[14]

In the Birchfield case, the North Dakota Supreme Court relied on Missouri v. McNeely[15] in making their decision. In Missouri v. McNeely the Supreme Court stated that the natural metabolism of alcohol, from the body, does not implicitly allow for a warrantless exception, however, the Court acknowledged that there may be specific instances where a warrantless exception, within the Fourth Amendment, would apply to the natural metabolism of alcohol.[16] Assessment of these incidents will be on a case-by-case basis.


The use of a breath test to determine one’s alcohol level is inherently less obtrusive to an arrestee than the use of a blood test. Additionally, the use of a breath test only allows for the testing of one’s breath, whereas a blood test has the potential to provide greater access to the government. For example, one’s DNA is present in a blood sample, which could then potentially be utilized in other, irrelevant situations.[17] Further, the Court stated that the need for the Government to arrest and convict does not supersede the protections of individuals from obtrusive searches, such as a blood test, which requires the insertion of a needle into one’s arm.[18]

For purposes of DUI, a breath test is sufficient and will provide relevant evidence for the government to gain a conviction.[19] Further, the Court states that nothing would keep an officer from seeking a warrant for a blood test if an incident occurs and blood is required.[20] Conversely, by requiring law enforcement to seek warrants for a breath test, the District Courts may become overwhelmed with warrant applications for a procedure which requires very little intrusion.

The Court acknowledged that both the breath test and the blood test require a certain level of cooperation in order for the technician to gather a sample.[21] Due to the fact that such a sample may be incriminating, it is not improbable that one would opt to not cooperate.[22] This was the basis for the enactment of “implied consent” laws which are present in most state laws.[23] While other states threaten a revocation or suspension of one’s license, the laws in North Dakota and Minnesota sought to criminalize such refusals, which is essentially coercion.

Another area of concern, which his not addressed in Birchfield v. North Dakota is the occurrences of intoxication by substances other than alcohol. While the Court has acknowledged a breath test will be sufficient under most circumstances involving alcohol, the Court does not address the need for a method to test for drugs. The decision of Missouri v. McNeely indirectly speculates that some circumstances may allow for a warrantless exception if drugs are involved, however, most law enforcement agencies are unwilling to become the test-case.[24]

The idea that perhaps officers will be able to request warrantless blood tests, should there be a suspicion of DUI Drugs, was explored in a separate, independent case note.[25] In this specific case note, the author presents a thorough assessment of the issue of DUI Drugs, notably that a breath test does not test for drugs and therefore will cause issues for states seeking to limit the occurrences of DUI drugs.[26] Further, the author comments that the fact that drugs was not heavily included in the Birchfield v. North Dakota case could cause a subsequent case to allow for warrantless blood tests if drugs are the suspected intoxicators.[27]


It is interesting that the Court acknowledges the fact that natural metabolism may not be grounds for a warrantless search, while simultaneously acknowledging the importance of a chemical test at a time close to the driving to establish the BAC level. It is noted that the main distinction is the fact that the court placed a lot of emphasis on the intrusive nature of a blood test versus the unobtrusiveness of a breath test.

The decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota has implications which may be larger than one may realize. The primary reason for this assessment is the fact DUI enforcement relies on the results of one’s blood alcohol concentration. While many states do have laws which make driving under the influence illegal, based upon impairment that is substantiated by the officer,[28] states also have “per se” laws which state specific blood alcohol levels in which a person is impaired.[29] Without a valid sample and an arrestee’s blood alcohol concentration, the state cannot prove an individual is above the per se limit. An arrestee could potentially benefit from not cooperating from a chemical test, especially considering that a breath test requires one’s cooperation. The ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota does not preclude states from placing criminal sanctions against those who refuse a warrantless breath test; however, there will be no evidence to demonstrate that the arrestee is in fact over the legal limit. Granted, Birchfield v. North Dakota does not preclude an officer from obtaining a warrant for a blood test, if such test is required.