The United States Supreme Court recently issued a decision in Birchfield v. North Carolina that impacts chemical test refusals in Rhode Island and several other states. Read today’s blog to find out more on this landmark decision and the effects on Rhode Island drivers.

Can police take a chemical test without a warrant as a search incident to arrest?

The Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrest for drunk driving, but not warrantless blood tests. The Court found that breath tests do not “implicate significant privacy concerns” like blood tests, because breath tests are not physically intrusive and only yield a BAC reading, rather than other biological and genetic information. Therefore, police can ask drivers to take breathalyzer tests without a warrant, but if police want to take a blood sample from a drunk driving suspect, they must obtain a warrant.

Can a motorist be punished criminally for refusing to submit to a chemical test?

The Court also ruled on criminal punishments in refusal cases. The Court held that under the concept of implied consent, courts may impose civil penalties for motorists who refuse to submit to a chemical test. However, motorists may not be criminally punished for refusing to submit to a blood test based on legally implied consent to submit to them.

What does this case mean for Rhode Island drivers?

In the past, Rhode Island drivers have been subject to both breathalyzers and blood tests when suspected of DUI. The Birchfield decision means that drivers will still be subject to breathalyzers, but the likelihood of motorists facing blood tests will drop. A blood test will require a signed warrant by a judge, which can take time, especially late at night when DUI is prevalent.

Will this case change Rhode Island refusal penalties?

Currently, a first offense refusal to submit to a chemical test in Rhode Island is a civil penalty. The Birchfield case has upheld civil penalties for chemical test refusals, so this portion of the Rhode Island law will remain the same.

However, Rhode Island currently criminalizes second and subsequent refusal cases as a misdemeanor with penalties including jail time. Under the Birchfield decision, it seems that criminal penalties for breathalyzer refusals are constitutional and can still be prosecuted criminally. Conversely, a second or subsequent refusal charge based on a blood test can no longer be charged as a misdemeanor in Rhode Island. It is unclear how Rhode Island lawmakers will respond to this decision. Lawmakers may attempt to charge all blood tests refusals as civil violations or may advise police departments not to seek charges based on blood test refusals.

What should I do if I have been charged with a refusal?

If you have been charged with a chemical test refusal in Rhode Island, you should immediately call the Rhode Island DUI Lawyers at Abilheira Law. Our experienced lawyers stay up to date on all new laws and can help you beat your DUI or refusal charge. Call us today to request your consultation, 401-245-5100.