The Supreme Court yesterday gave prosecutors another weapon in the campaign against drunk driving by ruling that a driver's refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test can be disclosed in a trial as evidence of guilt.
The court also said that police do not have to issue a form of "Miranda warning" to motorists advising them that the refusal can be used against them in court.
In a 7-to-2 vote, the justices rejected claims that letting a judge or jury consider the refusal is the same as letting them consider a forced confession, which is prohibited by the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
While most states do not compel blood alcohol tests, drivers who refuse them generally face loss of their license under "implied consent laws." Yesterday's ruling doubles the risk: refusal now can lead to jail or a fine for drunk driving.
The decision is expected to aid the current nationwide crackdown against drunk driving. Though use of the tests has increased dramatically during the campaign, prosecutors and anti-drunk-driving organizations argue that juries assume that a driver passed the test if they don't hear anything to the contrary.
"The situation underlying this case--that of the drunk driver--occurs with tragic frequency on our nation's highways," Justice Sandra D. O'Connor said. "The carnage caused by drunk drivers is well documented and needs no detailed recitation here."
South Dakota vs. Mason Henry Neville began when police in Madison, S.D., stopped Neville for allegedly running a stop sign. According to the opinion, Neville's license already had been revoked for drunk driving. After he "staggered and fell against the car to support himself" and was unable to walk a straight line or touch his finger to his nose, the officers arrested him and read his Miranda rights.
When asked to take the blood alcohol test, Neville responded: "I'm too drunk, I won't pass the test."
The South Dakota Supreme Court said that disclosure of Neville's refusal and response was forbidden for the same reasons a jury may not hear a murder confession obtained without a Miranda warning: it would force him to testify against himself.
O'Connor said the two situations were not comparable. Under prior Supreme Court rulings, she said, Neville had no constitutional right to refuse the test the way a defendant has a right to refuse to talk to police. The blood alcohol test, she said, is not a form of interrogation. Thus, she ruled, Neville had no constitutional right to be warned of the consequences of refusing the test.
In addition, she said, South Dakota does not force drivers to take the test. It requires the test as a condition of driving. Thus, unlike a confession "coerced" by an officer, taking the test is a matter of choice in South Dakota, she said.
"We recognize, of course, that the choice to submit or refuse to take a blood alcohol test will not be an easy or pleasant one for a suspect to make," she said. "But the criminal process often requires suspects and defendants to make difficult choices."
Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice Thurgood Marshall, dissented. They said the South Dakota Supreme Court rested its decision on its own state constitution and should be allowed to do so without interference from the Supreme Court.
* The court ruled 7 to 2 that the Federal Communications Commission is not obligated under federal law to ensure that television stations provide special programming--such as close-captioned television--for the deaf and hearing-impaired.
The case, Community Television of Southern California vs. Gottfried, stemmed from an attempt to have the FCC use its licensing proceedings to enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires federal grantees to make special provisions for handicapped people. Writing for the court, Stevens agreed that the station in question--KCET-TV in Los Angeles--receives federal funds and is thus subject to the Rehabilitation Act. But its enforcement, he said, is the business of the agency that gives out the money, not the FCC.
In addition, Stevens said the FCC should not impose more stringent standards for aiding the handicapped on public stations than it does on commercial stations. The ruling overturned a decision of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Marshall dissented, joined by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., saying that the FCC is not free to "ignore a relevant act" such as the Rehabilitation measure.
* In an important labor-management case, the justices said that unions may not use federal antitrust laws to sue contractors' associations for allegedly coercing construction companies to use nonunion labor.
The case, Associated General Contractors of California Inc. vs. California State Council of Carpenters, et al., arose when unions accused the industry association of encouraging "double-breasting" by contractors--developent of independent, nonunion arms by previously unionized companies.
Allowing the antitrust suits, with potential treble damages as a result, would have given unions a powerful weapon against such activities. Marshall was the lone dissenter from an opinion written by Stevens.
* The court said a federal appeals court improperly second-guessed the factual conclusions of a state court when it threw out an Ohio murder conviction because of shaky evidence concerning the defendant's prior conviction in Illinois. Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the 5-to-4 court, reversed the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Marshall vs. Lonberger.
* The court let stand a lower court ruling (Tribune Publishing vs. Hyde) requiring the Columbia, Mo., Daily Tribune to go to trial on negligence charges for publishing the name and address of a crime victim before the criminal was apprehended. The victim said use of her name led to harassment from the man later arrested for the crime.
* The court let stand a lower court's refusal to block the now-concluded trial of U.S. District Court Judge Alcee Hastings in Florida. Hastings, who had argued that a federal judge cannot be tried by an ordinary court, was acquitted on Feb. 4 of obstructing justice and conspiring to take a bribe.