Federal Court Strikes Down Breathalyzers for Pedestrians as Unconstitutional

September 26, 2007

ACLU Praises Ruling as Major Civil Liberties Victory for Young Adults

DETROIT — In a ruling that will impact young adults throughout the state, a federal judge struck down a state law today that allows police to force pedestrians under the age of 21 to take a Breathalyzer test without first obtaining a search warrant, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced today.

"This is a tremendous victory for the civil liberties of young adults," said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. "For years, police officers throughout Michigan have violated the rights of countless college students and others under the age of 21 by forcing them to submit to breathalyzers without a court order." Michigan is one of the only states in the country to make it illegal for young adults and minors who are not driving to refuse a breathalyzer test when the police do not have a search warrant.  Those who refuse to take tests in Michigan are guilty of a civil infraction and must pay a $100 fine. (Mich. Comp. Laws § 436.1703(6).)


U.S. District Court Judge David M. Lawson, in a 32-page opinion, struck down the state law because it allows the police to conduct a search without a warrant: “The conclusion is escapable [that the Minor in Possession Law] authorizes police officers to perform a search of minors without a warrant or legal excuse for not obtaining one” in violation of  the Fourth Amendment.  The ruling does not apply to drivers of a motor vehicle and allows police officers to administer breath tests without warrants in emergencies.  

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Saginaw County women, Katie Platte and Ashley Berden, who were forced by Thomas Township police in Saginaw County to submit to breath tests although they had not been drinking.  The ACLU also represents two Mount Pleasant men, Cullin Stewart and Sam Maness, who forced to do the same by an interagency police task force that refers to itself as the “Party Patrol.”  The Party Patrol is comprised of officers from the Mount Pleasant Police Department, the Michigan State Police, Central Michigan University Police Department and the Isabella County Sheriff’s Department.  All defendants except the State of Michigan, the Michigan State Police and Thomas Township settled their cases before today’s ruling.

“I wasn’t drinking or causing a problem,” said Platte. “You’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but in this case, young people were assumed guilty until they proved they’re innocent by having to take a Breathalyzer test.”

Platte was 19 years old when she went to a small party in Thomas Township in July 2004 in honor of a high school classmate who had enlisted in the Marines and was leaving for Iraq. In spite of the fact that Platte was not drinking any alcoholic beverages, the Township police told her and others at the party that if they refused to take a breath test they would go to jail.

Berden was 18 years old when she attended a party at a friend’s house to celebrate her graduation from Swan Valley High School. After she left the party, Thomas Township police officers arrived and found her purse which she had forgotten.  They then came to Berden’s house at 4:00 a.m., woke up her family and demanded that she take a breath test.  The police did not have a warrant but they informed her that would be violating the law if she refused the test. The test registered a .00% blood-alcohol level, indicating that Berden had not been drinking.

Stewart and Maness, from Mt. Pleasant, were at a chaperoned graduation party in May, 2003 when the “Party Patrol” arrived and began grabbing students, forcing them to the ground.  The students were then placed in a circle and asked whether or not they had consumed any alcohol.  Mr. Stewart stated truthfully that he had not been drinking, but was nonetheless required to submit to a breathalyzer test.

Judge Lawson heard a similar case in 2003, in which he struck down an identical Bay City ordinance. Following Judge Lawson’s decision in 2003, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg sent letters or emails to 425 city, village and university attorneys advising them to urge their local law enforcement agencies to stop forcing minors to take unconstitutional breathalyzer tests.

The plaintiffs are being represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorneys Marshall Widick, William Street and David A. Moran, along with Steinberg and Moss.

To read the opinion, go to: www.aclumich.org/pdf/mipdecision.pdf

To read the complaint, go to www.aclumich.org/pdf/briefs/statebreathalizerlaw.pdf

To read the letter sent or emailed to the municipalities after the Bay City decision, go to:  http://aclumich.org/sites/default/files/file/pdf/briefs/breathalyzercityattorneyletter.pdf

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