BISMARCK, N.D. - Legislators are looking at last-minute changes to a bill cracking down on drunken driving following a Wednesday decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court’s ruling in Missouri vs. McNeely renders a North Dakota DUI law unconstitutional, said Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, during a House-Senate conference committee meeting Thursday.
In an 8-1 decision Wednesday, justices ruled that in most cases, law enforcement officers must get a warrant before compelling a suspected drunken driver to submit to a blood alcohol test.
“This is a huge deal,” Aaron Birst told the conference committee.
Birst, attorney for the North Dakota Association of Counties, said the ruling doesn’t directly impact House Bill 1302, a measure introduced following a couple of sensational drunken driving cases in the state.
But Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said the bill appears to provide the best opportunity for the state to respond to the Supreme Court ruling.
Koppelman, the prime sponsor of the bill, said he doesn’t believe such a change would be controversial even at this late date in the session.
Birst said the Supreme Court decision directly affects a state law that compels blood tests for DUI suspects in accidents involving serious injury or death.
Under current state law, a suspect can refuse a blood alcohol test, but not in a serious case.
A draft amendment to the bill suggests language directing law enforcement officers to attempt to secure a warrant before conducting post-arrest testing.
If the law isn’t changed, Birst said, officers might rely on the current law when investigating DUI cases.
If officers compel a blood alcohol test in violation of the Supreme Court ruling, the case likely would be thrown out, he said.
“Either we address it now or wait until next session and roll the dice for the next two years,” Birst said.
Law enforcement officers could be trained to seek warrants before proceeding with blood alcohol tests.
“But you could train people all day long and if something happens in the heat of the moment, then you would lose the case,” Birst said.
He said the current law allowing blood tests in serious injury or fatal accidents is used regularly by law enforcement.
About half the state’s traffic fatalities are related to drunken driving, Birst said, and officers require blood tests in about half of them.
However, he said, it will more significantly impact states like South Dakota, which does not give drivers the right to refuse blood alcohol tests.
In North Dakota, a suspected drunken driver can refuse a test except in the case of serious or fatal injuries.
Among the proposals in HB1302 is a provision that would allow a suspect to refuse a test, but to make that refusal a crime.
The bill makes a first and second DUI conviction a Class B misdemeanor, a third conviction a Class A misdemeanor and a fourth or subsequent conviction a Class C felony.
Lawmakers added a vehicular homicide provision to the law as well as two appropriations. The first is a $1.2 million appropriation for alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelets that will be used by those participating in the state’s 24/7 Sobriety Program.
When the Senate passed the bill April 9, Armstrong said the provision for the 24/7 Sobriety Program ensures that repeat offenders will do more jail time and that monitoring would help them stay sober for at least one calendar year.
The other appropriation is $360,000 to the Department of Human Services for an underage drinking prevention program.
The conference committee has been working through a bevy of mostly technical amendments to the bill, but has not yet reached any conclusions.
The original bill passed the House 80-14 and the Senate vote was 47-0.