KS Court: Law on sobriety tests unconstitutional

Posted at 4:48 PM, Feb 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-26 17:48:56-05
The Kansas Supreme Court struck down a state law Friday that punished suspected drunken drivers who refuse to submit to sobriety testing even if police have not obtained a search warrant.
With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to decide the issue on a national scale, Kansas' high court, in a 6-1 ruling, declared the state law a violation of constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, and by extension due process.
"In essence, the state's reasons are not good enough, and its law not precise enough, to encroach on the fundamental liberty interest in avoiding an unreasonable search," Justice Marla Luckert wrote for the majority.
Under Kansas law, anyone who operates a motor vehicle gives implied consent to breath, blood or urine testing to assess his or her sobriety. But according to Friday's ruling, the Kansas constitution allows a driver to withdraw consent, in Kansas' case without the prospect of being punished for it.
Such a refusal had been a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and at least a $1,250 fine.
Roughly a dozen states make it a crime to refuse to consent to warrantless alcohol testing. State supreme courts in Minnesota and North Dakota have ruled that the laws don't violate constitutional rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court announced in December it also will decide whether states can criminalize a driver's refusal to take an alcohol test. In all three cases the high court will consider, the challengers argue that warrantless searches are justified only in "extraordinary circumstances," and that routine drunk driving investigations are among the most ordinary of law enforcement functions in which traditional privacy rights apply.
The nation's Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that police usually must try to obtain a search warrant before ordering blood tests for drunken-driving suspects. The high court said circumstances justifying an exception to the warrant requirement should be decided on a case-by-case basis.
In his dissent Friday, Justice Caleb Stegall concluded the questioned statute could be applied on a case-by-case basis.
"By making this case about consent, the majority effectively looks at this appeal through the wrong end of the telescope and ends up with a myopic interpretation of (the statute)," Stegall wrote.
Chris Mann, Mothers Against Drunk Driving board member, considered Friday's ruling discouraging, noting that the organization "considers driving a privilege, not a right." Nationwide, he said, one in five suspected drunken drivers refuses to be tested for alcohol use.
"Law enforcement needs to have all of the tools at their disposal in order to keep our roads safe from drunk drivers," said Mann, of Lenexa, Kansas. "We anticipated most states would wait to see what the (U.S.) Supreme Court would do. Obviously, Kansas would not."