WHEN Mason Henry Neville was stopped on suspicion of drunk driving by two Madison, S.D., police officers, according to a Supreme Court decision handed down this week, "respondent (Neville) staggered and fell against the car to support himself. The officers smelled alcohol on his breath. Respondent did not have a driver's license and informed the officers that it was revoked after a previous driving-while-intoxicated conviction. The officers asked respondent to touch his finger to his nose and to walk a straight line. When respondent failed these field sobriety tests, he was placed under arrest and read his Miranda rights."

He then refused to take a blood-alcohol test after being warned that he would lose his license if he failed to do so. South Dakota law gives him the right to refuse. But Mr. Neville was asking too much, the Supreme Court held, when he attempted at his trial to suppress the fact that he had refused to take the test. The Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination applies only to acts that are coerced, and no impermissible coercion is involved when a suspect refuses to submit to a test. This ruling validates the new and effective drunk driving law in the District, and has prompted legislators in Maryland and Virginia to consider amending the law in those states as well.

The justices' revulsion at the carnage on the roads caused by drunk drivers is well founded. Law enforcement officials ought to be given all constitutionally permissible means to get them off the highways. To this end, the Supreme Court has authorized states to require blood-alcohol tests even over the objection of the suspect. Or a state may, as South Dakota does, decide not to force such a test, but to revoke the license of anyone who refuses to take it. It is now clear that this refusal is also admissible in evidence at trial, and it is a powerful piece of circumstantial evidence.

The Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, headed by former transportation secretary John Volpe, stresses in its recent interim report that the problem is essentially one of local law enforcement. But it makes a series of tough recommendations to the states: raising the minimum drinking age to 21, imposing a mandatory minimum sentence of 48 hours in jail or 90 days' suspension plus 100 hours of community service for drunk driving, eliminating plea bargaining in these cases and requiring a mandatory 30-day jail sentence for driving on a suspended or revoked license. The thrust of the report is that by education, law enforcement and public information programs, drunk driving must be made absolutely unacceptable in this country. Who could disagree?