Get-tough laws in Massachusetts and nationwide are cracking down on drunk drivers. Are they also eroding our constitutional rights?
FOR YEARS, CALIFORNIA defense lawyer Lawrence Taylor, who specializes in drunken driving cases, has traveled the country telling anyone who will listen that the decades-long, nationwide crackdown on drunk drivers has posed a significant threat to the Bill of Rights — what he calls a dangerous ”DUI exception to the Constitution.”
Whenever he steps outside the echo chamber of his fellow defense attorneys, however, he doesn’t get a very warm reception. ”I’ve pretty much stopped doing radio,” Taylor said recently. ”Most of the time it’s a setup. They assure me I’ll be the only one on the show, and then they confront me with a woman from Mothers Against Drunk Driving whose son or daughter was killed by a drunk driver.”
Taylor has learned to expect little sympathy for his clients and his cause — from the public or their elected representatives. As much as 90 percent of the US population supports get-tough measures like highway roadblocks and license revocation for drivers who refuse blood-alcohol tests, and lawmakers are respecting their wishes. Last fall, the Massachusetts Legislature approved the anti-drunken-driving package called Melanie’s Law, and Rhode Island’s governor will sign an even tougher bill by June. Rhode Island’s version will make refusing a breath test a criminal offense, and will empower police to force motorists to provide blood samples.
The next step in the crackdown will be letting the police take the blood samples themselves — something Texas and Utah are already trying. ”Would you want a police officer to stick a hypodermic in you?” asks Taylor.
But the point of his crusade, Taylor says, is not saving drunk drivers from a clumsy jab with a needle. It’s not really about drunk drivers at all. Taylor believes that a series of Supreme Court decisions upholding harsh drunken driving laws means that authorities can now abridge civil liberties almost at will, as long as they invoke public safety. The decisions affect the defendant’s right to a jury trial, to examine evidence, to confront an accuser, and, perhaps most notably, to be free from self-incrimination and unreasonable search and seizure.
Taylor thinks the implications extend far beyond cases of driving under the influence to all areas of criminal law, including murder trials, and even to the measures taken by the Bush administration in the war on terror. Taylor likes to close his stump speech with a humorous paraphrase of Martin Niemoeller’s famous warning about creeping fascism — “First they came for the drunks, but I was not a drunk, so I did not speak up” — but he’s quite serious. ”Law is based on precedent,” he warned. ”When you start dismantling constitutional protections, you’re setting precedents. I don’t think people understand what we’re doing constitutionally.”…
Taylor thinks these measures have led to a Bill of Rights with a few asterisks for those who are accused of driving under the influence. But at the federal level at least, the battle over constitutionality, like the battle for public opinion, is mostly over. Most of the anti-drunken-driving measures that MADD has championed have been vetted by the Supreme Court and survived the ordeal….
Perhaps Lawrence Taylor, for years preaching to the converted, may yet find a new audience for his speeches — if not out of compassion for intoxicated motorists, then out of fear of those who might become intoxicated by power.