State troopers are using holidays to exercise new powers to demand that suspected drunk drivers give up a vial of their blood against their will.
State officials say they forced nine people who refused breath tests during Department of Safety holiday weekend crackdowns to submit to blood tests over the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends. A new law gives police the tools to obtain a warrant to require a blood test.
But officials also say they would not be surprised if the law’s constitutionality were to be tested in court.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if someone challenges it. Having said that, I’m pretty comfortable that the law will be upheld,” said Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons.
“Is any search warrant invasive? I guess you could argue that, but under our law there is a procedure to seek a search warrant. We have to persuade a judge that there is probable cause that a person is driving under the influence, and if that judge agrees, then we obtain a search warrant,” he told TNReport.
Refusal comes at a cost. Those drivers lose most of their driving rights for a year.
But on holiday weekends when the state lines up judges and nurses or other medical professionals to be onsite with troopers, the refusal option is rendered moot. The judges can issue search warrants on the spot, and the medical professionals can draw the blood.
One driver was forced to submit to a blood test over the Labor Day weekend in Sullivan County, state Safety Department officials say. Over July 4, the number was eight.
Not known is how many drivers submitted to a breath test without protest because they were aware of the new law.
The department declined to release the outcomes of those blood tests, saying the information would be considered evidence in pending criminal cases.
The no-refusal law won narrow approval in the state House of Representatives this year despite hesitance from lawmakers like House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who at the time said, “It concerns a lot of people when the government holds people down and takes bodily fluids out. I think you saw that in the close vote today.”
Others in the Legislature say the law is a tool to keep streets safe from intoxicated drivers.
“You’re driving around like a cocked gun, and nothing good can ever come from that,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. “I do agree with the policy, and it’ll be up to some court or some ACLU attorney, I suppose, to decide if this is some invasion of privacy.”
Tennessee’s ACLU chapter says it is so far not engaged in any fights over the no-refusal policy.
David Raybin, a criminal defense lawyer in Nashville, says there’s nothing constitutionally suspect about requiring DUI suspects to fork over their blood.
”If they have probable cause to arrest you for a DUI, they have probable cause to take your blood,” he said. “There’s no constitutional problem with doing that because of the emergency of the situation because the alcohol content goes away so quickly.”