Prosecutor Karen Richards last week announced a new policy: Suspected drunk drivers who refuse a breath test will be served a search warrant requiring them to submit to a blood test. Those who still refuse will be subject either to a charge of resisting law enforcement or to go before a judge and face contempt charges, either of which can result in a jail sentence.
Here are the answers to some questions about the new policy:
Q. Isnt it already illegal to refuse a breath test?
A. Under Indianas implied consent law, motorists with the privilege of having a drivers license must consent to a blood-alcohol test when directed by police. But violation is a simple infraction, not a misdemeanor or felony. Refusing the test may cost you your drivers license for a year, but there is no criminal penalty.
Q. Did County Councilman Paul Moss refusal to take a field sobriety test after being pulled over this spring spur this policy?
A. No. The plan has been discussed for more than a year, according to Chief Deputy Prosecutor Michael McAlexander. Besides, this policy does not apply to field sobriety tests, which can include dexterity tests and blowing into a portable, but less reliable, breath analyzer. The infraction occurs when a driver is taken to a police office, instructed to breathe into a certified analyzing machine and refuses.
Q. Why did it take so long to develop and implement the policy?
A. Prosecutors had approached medical providers about drawing blood but were met with concerns about liability. In one meeting Sheriff Ken Fries heard about the concerns of health care providers and said nurses employed at the Allen County Jail could draw the blood. The first search warrants were issued the weekend before last.
Q. Why a blood test?
A. For one, it is the most reliable way to measure blood-alcohol content. For another, a blood test is passive – the motorist must simply remain still – while a breath analyzer requires the motorist to blow with a certain amount of force. That requires cooperation.
One additional benefit for law enforcement: The blood draw is also tested for illegal drugs while the breath test measures only alcohol.
Q. Is refusal to take a breath test so common a search warrant policy is needed?
A. More common than you might think. On the first weekend the policy was in place, four search warrants were issued.
It happens with great frequency, said Huntington County Prosecutor Amy Richison, whose office has had a policy similar to Allen Countys for about five years. While some motorists seem to make a conscious decision to refuse, Richison points out that inebriated drivers are often not thinking right.
Q. Many drunken-driving stops take place late at night and on weekends. How does a police officer get a search warrant then?
A. The officer contacts the deputy prosecutor on call, who reviews the request. If the prosecutors office believes the request is appropriate, it contacts a judge. Fax machines and phone lines have been set up in the homes of Allen Superior Court criminal judges and magistrates, who sign the order when they agree probable cause exists to force a test.
Q. Are there any legal concerns about the prosecutors new policy?
A. One could argue that the legislature has decided that refusal to take a breath test is an infraction and prosecutors are attempting an end-run around that law. But seeking evidence after reasonably believing someone committed a crime has long been part of the criminal justice process, and the involvement of a judge meets the test of conducting a search when a judge allows.
Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defenders Council and one of the states staunchest protectors of people accused but not yet convicted of crimes, did not challenge the legality. If they have reason to request a Breathalyzer, its very likely the judge will find probable cause to issue a search warrant, he said.