Fourth Amendment

Michigan High School Student Sues Over Warrantless Breathalyzer Test

The student is challenging a local ordinance and a state law for being in violation of the Fourth Amendment.


Miguel Ángel Ramón / Pixabay

A high school student in Grosse Ile Township, Michigan, filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday after a police officer cited her for refusing to take a Breathalyzer test without a search warrant.

Casey Guthrie is challenging a local ordinance and a state law that allow officers to perform breath tests on those under 21 if they have a reasonable cause. Under the Michigan Liquor Control Code, those who refuse to undergo the test are cited for a civil infraction and may be ordered to pay a fine of no more than $100.

The lawsuit comes out of an incident in May, when Detective Ken Pelland pulled over a vehicle Guthrie was riding in. Pelland asked those in the car to agree to a breath test to see whether or not they had been drinking. Guthrie refused, so Pelland wrote her a ticket.

Now she's arguing this ordinance is unlawful and a violation of the Fourth Amendment, as Pelland was not first required to get a warrant to conduct these tests.

"What's especially egregious is that police are intimidating teenagers into taking Breathalyzers and telling them, 'You need to prove your innocence,'" the gir's lawyer, Mike Rataj said. "That's not the way the criminal justice system works."

Guthrie's lawsuit is actually not unusual for Michigan. As the Detroit Free Press reports:

Over the past decade in Michigan, judges have struck down warrantless Breathalyzer tests three times, most recently in 2007, when U.S. District Judge David Lawson struck down a state law that allowed police to force pedestrians under the age of 21 to take a Breathalyzer without first obtaining a search warrant.

In a 32-page opinion, Lawson concluded the state law violated the Fourth Amendment. But his ruling does not apply to drivers of a motor vehicle.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two women, ages 18 and 19, who had attended high school graduation parties and were pressured into taking breath tests, even though neither had been drinking, records show. In one case, local police showed up at the 18-year-old's house at 4 a.m., woke up her family and demanded that she take a breath test, noting her refusal to do so would be considered unlawful.

The teenager took the test, which registered a .00% blood-alcohol level, records show.

Lawson heard a similar case in 2003, when he struck down a Bay City Breathalyzer ordinance. Following that decision, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan sent letters or emails to 425 city, village and university attorneys advising them to urge their local law enforcement agencies to stop forcing minors to take unconstitutional Breathalyzer tests.

While pedestrians and minors are already protected under the law, Guthrie's lawsuit may be a step in extending these rights to those behind the wheel. If officers have a reason to believe a teenager may have been drinking, they should get a warrant.

[Hat tip: Aaron Lanning]