Refusing a blood alcohol test: Tennessee amends its law following U.S. Supreme Court decision

A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that someone suspected of impaired driving has the right to refuse a warrantless blood test, but not a warrantless breath test.

The decision went against 13 states, including Tennessee, with so-called implied consent laws that imposed penalties on any type of test refusal.

Tennessee’s amended law

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, Tennessee has now amended its implied consent law, found in Section 55-10-406 of the Tennessee Code, effective July 1, 2017.

Under the new law, a driver can no longer be penalized for refusing a blood test for blood alcohol content in cases where law enforcement has not obtained a search warrant. An officer may administer a blood test only with consent of the driver, with a valid search warrant, or if exigent circumstances exist.

In other words, if the officer doesn’t have a warrant and asks you to consent to a blood test for blood-alcohol content, you don’t have to submit to the test.

Warrantless breath tests will still be allowed, and refusal of the breath test would be a violation of the implied consent law. But in order for courts to impose consequences for warrantless test refusal, law enforcement officers must have informed you of the possible consequences for refusing a breath test.

Refusal of a blood test when an officer has a valid search warrant or when exigent circumstances exist can lead to an additional criminal penalty.


Breath tests vs. blood tests

The Supreme Court was not in unanimous agreement a year ago in Birchfield v. North Dakota, the case that struck down warrantless blood tests. A dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the distinction between blood tests and breath tests was hair-splitting

Seven of the eight justices concluded, however, that warrantless blood tests are an unreasonable search that violates the Fourth Amendment.

As one of the 13 states with laws that imposed penalties for test refusal, Tennessee has now amended its law to conform to the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

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