Court Strikes Down Breathalyzer Tests for Pedestrians As Unconstitutional

In a ruling that will impact young adults throughout the state, a federal judge ruled that the police may no longer force pedestrians under age 21 to take a Breathalyzer test without obtaining a search warrant. The decision comes in a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

“For years, police officers throughout Michigan have violated the rights of countless college students and others under age 21 by forcing them to submit breathalyzers without a warrant,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director.  “This is a tremendous victory for the civil liberties of young adults.”

The case stems from an encounter by Jamie Spencer, a Bay City resident, with the Bay City police in August, 2001, when she was 19 years old.  She, her husband and some friends were leaving a city park after rollerblading, when two officers approached Mrs. Spencer and demanded that she blow into a Breathalyzer machine.  

She told the officers she had not been drinking and she did not want to take the test.  However, when the officers threatened her with a $100 fine, she felt she had no choice.  The test indicated that she had not been drinking.  

“Even though I had done nothing wrong, the police invaded my privacy,” said Mrs. Spencer.  “I am glad that because of this decision, the police will not harass innocent young people in the future by forcing them into such a demeaning situation.”

U.S. District Court Judge David M. Lawson, in a 23-page opinion issued on Thursday, struck down the Bay City ordinance that makes it illegal for people under age 21 to refuse to consent to a Breathalyzer test.  The ruling does not apply to drivers of a motor vehicle.  Judge Lawson held that the ordinance violates the Fourth Amendment because (1) a breath test is a search, (2) the Fourth Amendment ordinarily prohibits searches without search warrants, and (3) no exceptions to the search warrant requirement apply. 

Judge Lawson further emphasized that “the right to be left alone in public places ranks high on the hierarchy of entitlements that citizens in a free society have come to expect at least in the context of citizen-police encounters.” 

Since the Bay City ordinance is identical to state law, the decision will bring welcome relief to college students across the state, according to Jonathan Knapp, president of the Central Michigan University Chapter of the ACLU.

 “It is a well-known and common procedure on campuses across the state for the police to stop students walking across campus on weekend nights and force them to take Breathalysers whether or not they have been drinking," said Knapp. "This is a great student rights decision."

“Michigan is the only state in the country to make it illegal for a minor walking down the street to refuse a Breathalyzer test when the police do not have a search warrant,” said ACLU cooperating attorney David Moran.  “We are gratified that the federal court has recognized that the state cannot take away the privacy rights of people just because they are under age 21.

In addition to Moran, Mrs. Spencer is represented by Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director, and William T. Street, a volunteer ACLU lawyer from Saginaw. 

Read the complaint.

Read the brief.

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