Lawrence Taylor's Top 10 U.S. Supreme Court DUI Cases

California DUI defense attorney Lawrence Taylor, author of the standard DUI textbook in the field for the past 33 years (Drunk Driving Defense, 7th edition), has selected the 10 most important decisions rendered by the United States Supreme Court concerning drunk driving law.

  1. MICHIGAN vs SITZ 496 U.S. 444 (1990)
  2. SOUTH DAKOTA vs NEVILLE 522 U.S. 136 (1997)
  3. CALIFORNIA vs TROMBETTA 467 U.S. 479 (1984)
  4. SCHMERBER v. CALIFORNIA 384 U.S. 757 (1966)
  5. MISSOURI v. McNEELY 596 U.S. ___ (2013)
  6. PENNSYLVANIA v. MUNIZ 496 U.S. 582 (1990)
  7. BLANTON v. NORTH LAS VEGAS 489 U.S. 538 (1989)
  8. BELL v. BURSON 402 U.S. 535 (1971)
  9. ROCHIN v. CALIFORNIA 342 U.S. 165 (1952)
  10. MORISSETTE v. UNITED STATES 342 U.S. 246 (1952)
  1. Are DUI Sobriety Checkpoints Constitutional?

    MICHIGAN vs SITZ 496 U.S. 444 (1990)

    In Michigan Department of State Police vs. Sitz (commonly abbreviated to Michigan vs. Sitz), the U.S. Supreme Court was presented with the question: Do sobriety checkpoints (aka DUI roadblocks) constitute a violation of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution? Simply put, can police stop and question drivers without the necessary probable cause -- i.e., without a reasonable suspicion that the driver is actually engaged in criminal behavior?

    This case was an appeal from a case in which a group of Michigan citizens brought a lawsuit for declaratory and injunctive relief, claiming that police checkpoints were an unconstitutional violation of their 4th Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiff citizens; the Michigan Court of Appeals agreed, and the Michigan Supreme Court refused to intervene. The Department of Police appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    In a much-criticized 5-4 decision, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion. To begin with, he acknowledged that the stop of a vehicle at a DUI checkpoint is, in fact, a seizure within the meaning of the 4th Amendment. Although an apparent Constitutional violation, the question was: was it a reasonable stop?

    The Courts majority reasoned that a balancing test must be applied -- balancing the states interest in preventing accidents caused by drunk drivers, the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints in achieving that goal, and the level of intrusion on an individuals privacy caused by the checkpoints.

    The majority held that the slight intrusion into a citizens privacy in being stopped at a sobriety checkpoint was outweighed by the governments interest in preventing harm from drunk drivers.

    Note: One of the 4 dissenting justices, Justice Stevens, wrote in his dissenting opinion: It seems evident that the Court today misapplies the balancing test...The Court overvalues the law enforcement interest in using sobriety checkpoints (and) undervalues the citizens interest in freedom from random, announced investigatory seizures..

    The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to the Michigan courts to revise their decision in accordance with the ruling. Upon remand, however, the Michigan Court of Appeals in Sitz v. Department of State Police (193 Mich. App., 1992) refused to change the original results. Rather than rely upon the U.S. Constitution, they turned instead to their own state constitution for authority to protect its citizens: Although we recognize the enormity of the problem caused by drunk driving, we do not believe the proposed elimination of the rights of Michigan citizens to be free from suspicionless seizure a proper response to the problem.
  2. Can a Refusal to Take a Blood Alcohol Test Be Used Against a Defendant?

    SOUTH DAKOTA vs NEVILLE 522 U.S. 136 (1997)

    In this case, a state law permitted a citizen suspected of drunk driving to refuse to submit to a blood alcohol test. The defendant was arrested and officers correctly warned him that his drivers license would be suspended if he refused to submit to a blood alcohol test; they failed, however, to advise him that a refusal to do so could be used in evidence at trial. The defendant refused.

    The trial court granted defendants motion to suppress all evidence of the refusal. On appeal the South Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts ruling, holding that the statute which authorized the introduction of refusal evidence constituted a violation of the 5th Amendments privilege against self-incrimination.

    Upon remand back to the South Dakota Supreme Court, that Court held that if such a refusal was not a violation of the United States Constitution, it was nevertheless a violation of the South Dakota Constitution -- and again reversed the conviction.)
  3. Does Police Destruction of Breath Samples Violate Due Process?

    CALIFORNIA vs TROMBETTA 467 U.S. 479 (1984)

    A group of defendants in this case were independently arrested for DUI, taken to the station and given a breath test. As with all breathalyzers, the Intoxilyzer model used in these cases captured a sample of the suspects breath in a sample chamber, analyzed it -- and then purged it into the air; nothing is saved.

    Prior to trial, the defendants moved to suppress the breath test results, arguing that destruction of the most important evidence in the case denied them due process -- in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland, holding that an accused had an absolute right to be given any potentially exonerating evidence.

    Evidence was presented that a small and inexpensive device was readily available to law enforcement which would capture and save the breath sample so that the accused could later have it reanalyzed by independent experts.

    The California Court of Appeal ruled in the defendants favor. Due process, the court held, demanded that the arresting officers save the breath samples as critical evidence.

    The United States Supreme Court reversed. The majority opinion said that the destruction of the breath samples were not a calculated effort to circumvent the disclosure requirements stablished by Brady v. Maryland. Further, and more importantly, the defendants failed to show that the breath samples would have had an exculpatory value that was apparent before the evidence was destroyed, and also be of such a nature that the defendant would be unable to obtain comparable evidence by other available means.

    According to the Court, the defendants failed to show that the breath test results would have been different if they had been given the samples to test by their own experts. But isnt this a Catch-22? How can a citizen prove a breath test result would have been different -- if they are denied the chance to re-test it?. And how can a citizen locked in a jail cell obtain comparable evidence by other available means?)
  4. Does Taking a Blood Sample from a DUI Suspect Violate the 5th Amendment?

    SCHMERBER v. CALIFORNIA 384 U.S. 757 (1966)

    The defendant in this case was driving, got in an accident and hospitalized. A police officer at the accident scene observed symptoms of intoxication and, at the hospital, arrested him and - over the defendants objection - ordered the physician to take a blood sample. The results of the blood test were admitted into trial and the defendant was convicted.

    On appeal, the defendant claimed that this was a denial of his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination -- that the withdrawal of his blood in effect forced him to produce evidence against himself. The conviction was affirmed by the California Court of Appeal.

    On further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the conviction was again upheld. In a narrow 5-4 decision, the majority found that the protection against self-incrimination applied only to verbal communications or testimony -- not to physical evidence. As Justice Brennan wrote in the majority opinion, the blood test results were neither testimony nor evidence relating to some communicative act or writing by the (defendant), it was not inadmissible on privilege grounds.

  5. Can a Blood Sample Be Taken from a DUI Suspect Without a Warrant?

    MISSOURI v. McNEELY 596 U.S. ___ (2013)

    An increasingly common procedure in drunk driving cases is to forcefully withdraw blood from a suspect who has refused to submit to blood or breath testing. This has usually been accomplished without a search warrant. In this case, the defendant was arrested for DUI and refused both breathalyzer and blood tests. Without attempting to get a warrant, the arresting officer directed hospital personnel to withdraw blood from him.

    The trial court granted McNeelys motion to suppress the blood test results. The state appellate court reversed the suppression; the Missouri Supreme Court reversed again, agreeing with the trail court. The prosecution appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that absent exigent circumstances, the police must first obtain a warrant before taking a blood sample from an accused. The Court rejected the prosecutions argument that such exigent circumstances always exist in routine drunk driving cases since the blood-alcohol level will dissipate over time. Rather, the majority said, it depends upon the totality of the circumstances in each case and, absent further facts, the possibility of some dissipation is not sufficient reason to avoid getting a warrant.

    For a discussion of the related issue of the amount of force which can be used to obtain a blood sample, see the discussion of Rochin v. California below. (Note: Chief Justice Roberts cited my book, Drunk Driving Defense, 7th edition, in his majority opinion in McNeely as legal authority in the field)
  6. Do Verbal Field Sobriety Tests Violate the Privilege Against Self-Incrimination?

    PENNSYLVANIA v. MUNIZ 496 U.S. 582 (1990)

    Muniz was arrested for drunk driving and taken to the police station where he was given a series of field sobriety tests. Some of these consisted of questions designed to test his mental acuity, such as When you turned six years old, do you remember what the date was? (Muniz replied, No, I dont). No Miranda warnings were given.

    On appeal, Munizs attorney argued that this constituted a violation of his right against self-incrimination under the 5th Amendment -- that his answers were testimonial responses to custodial interrogation -- and thus were inadmissible in trial.

    The U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The Court distinguished between questions designed to elicit the content of speech from questions designed to determine the manner of the speech. If, for example, the questions were asked to see if Muniz speech was slurred or otherwise impaired, then this was permissible as observed physical evidence. If, however, it was asked to determine what was said -- rather than how it was said -- then it was custodial interrogation and a Miranda advisement was required.

    examples of other such commonly asked field sobriety questions as Where are you? or What time is it? would similarly be considered as interrogation.
  7. Does a Citizen Accused of Drunk Driving Have Right to a Jury Trial?

    BLANTON v. NORTH LAS VEGAS 489 U.S. 538 (1989)

    Under Nevada law, anyone convicted of a first-time DUI faces up to 6 months in jail, a fine of $1000, attend an alcohol abuse class and lose his drivers license for 90 days.

    This appeal was brought by two defendants who had each been separately convicted of drunk driving. In each case, the trail judge denied them the right to have a jury decide their innocence or guilt. On appeal, the Nevada Supreme Court held that the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee a right to a jury trial for a DUI offense.

    On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, the majority agreed. The 6th Amendment only guarantees a jury trial in serious offenses -- not for petty ones. The criteria for determining whether a crime is serious is, basically, whether it is punishable by more than 6 months in jail; anything punishable by 6 months or less is petty and does not require a jury trail. The exception is where additional penalties indicate a legislative intent to consider the offense a serious one.

    Dont such commonly added penalties in DUI cases such as license suspensions, fines, schools, ignition interlock devices, etc., reflect such a "legislative intent?
  8. Is a Drivers License a Privilege -- or a Right?

    BELL v. BURSON 402 U.S. 535 (1971)

    We have all repeatedly heard that a drivers license is a privilege, not a right. And, unlike a legal right, a privilege can be taken away -- with little or no effective remedy for the driver to contest the suspension or revocation.

    In this Supreme Court case, a clergyman in Georgia was involved in an accident caused by a 5-year-old girl who rode her bicycle into the side of his car. His license was suspended. A hearing on the suspension was conducted -- but he was not permitted to offer evidence that he was not at fault. He appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, arguing that he was denied due process. That state court held that the hearing was sufficient due process, even if he wasnt permitted to offer critical evidence on his behalf.

    The clergyman appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a unanimous 9-0 ruling, the Court recognized the importance of a drivers license, including the fact that its continued possession may become essential in the pursuit of a livelihood. Because of their value, then, they are not to be taken away without that procedural due process required by the Fourteenth Amendment -- including a meaningful hearing, not just a formality.

    Although this was not a DUI case, it directly impacts any citizen accused of the crime. Without the Bell decision, it is doubtful that many states -- if any -- would provide the administrative DMV hearings now offered as a due process right in drunk driving cases to contest suspensions and revocations, complete with submission of evidence, taking of testimony, right to counsel and the power of subpoena.
  9. Are There Limits to the Force Used to Draw Blood from a DUI Suspect?

    ROCHIN v. CALIFORNIA 342 U.S. 165 (1952)

    In this case, Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs forcefully entered Rochins residence without a warrant, noticed two capsules on a nightstand and asked Whose stuff is this?. Rochin immediately swallowed the capsules, whereupon a deputy grabbed and squeezed him by the neck and drove his fingers into his mouth. Unable to get the capsules, the deputies took him to a hospital where the suspect was strapped down on an operating table, given an emetic solution and had a tube forcibly shoved down his throat and into his stomach. Rochin then vomited out the capsules, which proved to contain morphine.

    In court, Rochin unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence and was convicted of possession of morphine. On appeal, the court affirmed the conviction and found that although the police behavior was egregious, the courts are not permitted to question the means by which it was obtained.

    The United States Supreme Court reversed the decision and struck down the conviction. In a 6-2 decision, Justice Frankfurter wrote the majority opinion in which he found that the brutality of the means used to obtain the evidence shocks the conscience and thus was a violation of the right to due process.

    Frankfurter quoted from the dissenting opinion in the lower court decision: A conviction which rests upon evidence of incriminating objects obtained from the body of the accused by physical abuse is as invalid as a conviction which rests upon a verbal confession extracted from him by such abuse.

    Although this case did not involve drunk driving, the Supreme Courts ruling directly affects the growing number of DUI arrests across the country in which blood is forcefully withdrawn from the arrestees body -- often using violent and painful methods.
  10. Can Facts Be Presumed by Law to Exist Without Proof?

    MORISSETTE v. UNITED STATES 342 U.S. 246 (1952)

    Defendant was a junk dealer who entered an Air Force bombing range and took old bomb casings that had been lying around for years. He was charged and convicted for knowingly converting government property. At trail, Morissettes defense was that he thought the casings had been abandoned. The judge instructed the jury that the law only required an intent to take the property -- rather than knowledge that the property had not been abandoned.

    The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction, holding that intent is an essential element of the crime -- and the trial court cannot withdraw or prejudge the issue by instructing the jury that the law raises a presumption of intent.

    Although not a drunk driving case, Morissette directly impacts all DUI cases. It has, for example, become common across the country to pass laws that presume critical issues in DUI trials. Most states have laws that require a judge to instruct the jury that if a drivers breath or blood test results are over .08% blood-alcohol, then he is presumed to be under the influence or intoxicated -- despite the fact that other evidence might contradict this. Another common legal presumption is that the blood-alcohol level at the time of driving is presumed to be the same as at the time of testing (often 1-3 hours later) -- again, despite the fact that it is almost certainly not be the same due to metabolism of the alcohol.

    These laws avoid the impact of Morissette by making the presumptions rebuttable -- that is, the jury can consider other evidence which contradicts this presumption. The problem is that a defendant is almost never in a position when in police custody to obtain other blood-alcohol testing. Nevertheless, without this Supreme Court decision, these presumptions would probably be applied as conclusive -- that is, the jury must convict if the the tests are .08% or higher. And a conclusive presumption would be a violation of the constitutional presumption of innocence.

Back to Top