Is it illegal to refuse a breath test? Florida Supreme Court to decide.

A case questioning the implied consent to breath tests could provide some guidance to an upcoming case in Florida.

The criminal justice system is evolving. Currently, the use of the implied consent law to punish those who refuse to give a blood, breath and urine tests when the driver is suspected of driving under the influence is under review. A number of cases throughout the country are calling the constitutionality of this process into question, including one in Florida. The case, William Williams v. State, was argued by Delgado & Romanik and is currently slated to be decided by the Florida Supreme Court. Although the holding is not yet known, a recent, similar case out of Hawaii could provide some guidance.

Similar case out of Hawaii provides example of potential ruling

The case out of Hawaii, State of Hawaii v. Yong Shik Won, essentially addressed the same issue: is it legal to punish those who refuse to take a blood test? In Hawaii, those who refuse the breath test can face a criminal misdemeanor charge. This penalty can come with up to thirty days imprisonment, a fine of $1,000 and required community service as well as the cost of other assessments and fees.

Upon review of this case, Hawaii's Supreme Court discussed four issues:

  • Does a breath test count as a search? The court reiterated previous holdings, finding that a breath test qualifies as a search. As such, it falls under the limitations of the Fourth Amendment, which protect against unreasonable searches and seizures. Furthermore, the court also clarified that searches without a warrant are unreasonable.
  • Does this count as an exception to the warrant requirement? In order to move forward with a search without a warrant, the individual in question must consent to the search. This consent must be clear and voluntarily given; a mere absence of objection does not satisfy this requirement. Furthermore, the consent cannot be coerced. The use of an implied threat or other form of coercion would nullify any attempt at receiving consent. Due to the many factors that must be taken into consideration to determine if consent is given, the totality of the circumstances for each individual case is reviewed. In addition, even if consent is initially given it can be withdrawn.
  • Is it legal to have a statute that requires irrevocable consent to a search? Essentially, the court says it is not. The court stated that it has upheld the implied consent law in cases when the individual is informed of his or her right to withdraw that consent. The notion that the individual has irrevocably consented to these searches goes against stated law. As a result, the only way to move forward with a breath test is to receive voluntary consent from the individual.
  • Was informed and voluntary consent under the totality of circumstances given in this case? The court finds that consent is not given in this case for a number of reasons. One example was that the court found the threat of imprisonment to qualify as coercion.

Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of Won finding the evidence gathered from the breathalyzer was not admissible.

Impact of the ruling in Florida

Although holdings in Hawaii do not set precedent in Florida, the ruling could provide some guidance. The court in Florida may break the larger issue into four smaller questions in much the same manner. However the issue is decided, the case shows the importance of being apprised of current case law when facing criminal charges. As a result, those who are facing similar charges are wise to seek the counsel of an experienced DUI defense attorney to help better ensure their rights are protected.