ACLU Challenges Unconstitutional Breath Test of 13-Year-Old in Livonia

September 20, 2011

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of a 13-year-old boy who was forced by the Livonia police to submit to a breath test even though they did not have a warrant authorizing the procedure. The teen was not drinking and police had no evidence that he had broken the law.

“Federal and state courts have ruled over and over again that if a teen is not driving, the police need a search warrant to administer a breath test,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “The Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement is designed to prevent exactly what happened in this case. When there is no evidence that a child has done anything wrong, he should never be subjected to this degrading and embarrassing procedure in front of his teachers and peers.”

In June, the 13-year-old student was at a school-sponsored picnic in Livonia’s Rotary Park, celebrating his class’ graduation from Discovery Middle School in Canton. The student and his friends went into the woods for a short walk. When they returned, they were accused of drinking by the assistant principal who had followed them into the woods and found an empty liquor bottle on the ground. Despite the students’ assurances that they were not drinking and that the bottle the principal found did not belong to them, the principal called the police.

Upon their arrival, the police immediately began questioning the teens. When the teens denied that they were drinking, the police forced them to take a breath test without their consent. At no time did the police or the school notify the parents of the accusations or attempt to obtain a warrant. The teens each registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.00 percent proving that they had not been drinking.

As a result of this incident, the ACLU’s client fears more intense scrutiny in future police encounters because his name is now included in at least one police database.

“My son has always been taught to respect his educators and law enforcement,” said Tina Barbee, the mother of the teen challenging the illegal search. “In June, he was taught a very different lesson – educators and police make mistakes. Although a wrong was done, I truly believe it can be made right. My son is standing up for his constitutional rights so that what happened to him doesn’t have to happen to anyone else.”

In its 10-page lawsuit, the ACLU of Michigan cites numerous Michigan court decisions condemning the practice of forcing minors who are not driving to take breath tests without their consent or a warrant. In 2002, the ACLU of Michigan successfully challenged a Bay City ordinance authorizing warrantless breath tests. Following this decision, the organization wrote letters to 425 university attorneys and municipalities, including Livonia, asking them to adopt new policies and practices that would conform to the court’s ruling. In 2007, a federal judge agreed with the ACLU of Michigan again and threw out a similar state statute. Most recently, the Michigan Court of Appeals weighed in declaring such searches unconstitutional.

The ACLU’s lawsuit asks the court to rule that the Livonia police violated the child’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure and award damages. In addition, the ACLU asks the court to order officials to remove the teen’s name and incident from all law enforcement records.

In addition to Korobkin, the teen is represented by Michael J. Steinberg of the ACLU of Michigan.

Key News & Documents
Read the complaint in this case
Read more about the Bay City challenge
Read more about the challenge to the state statute

Related Issues: