DUI may become harder to prove, but legal limit may drop

The New York Times reported on two recent developments that may have an impact on DUI charges in Illinois. On the one hand, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling may benefit people who are stopped on suspicion of drunk driving, as it reaffirms a constitutional right to be protected from overly intrusive police tactics. On the other, a recommendation to change the threshold blood alcohol level for DUI could ultimately criminalize behavior that is now legal.

Limits on blood alcohol tests

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a Missouri state court was correct when it suppressed the results of a blood test that police obtained without a warrant. The case began when a driver was pulled over for speeding, and the police office noticed that the driver was slurring his speech and smelled like alcohol. After he was unable to pass field sobriety tests, the driver was asked to provide a breath sample, then a blood sample, to determine his blood alcohol level. The driver refused both tests, but the police had his blood drawn without obtaining a warrant. The driver's blood alcohol concentration was well above the 0.08 legal limit.

The state court said that there were no "exigent circumstances" that made it necessary for the police to hurriedly collect a blood sample without waiting to get a warrant. Drawing the man's blood without his consent was unreasonably intrusive and a violation of his rights.

In agreeing with the state court, the Supreme Court said that the totality of the circumstances needs to be considered if a police officer wants to take a blood sample without a warrant.

The Supreme Court decision could mean that in Illinois a blood alcohol test taken without a warrant will not be admissible as evidence against someone charged with DUI.

Limiting blood alcohol levels?

Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that states lower the blood alcohol level that defines intoxication, from 0.08 to 0.05. The 0.08 level was recommended about ten years ago.

It is true that people whose blood alcohol level is 0.05 may show some effects. The New York Times cites statistics indicating that with a 0.05 blood alcohol level a driver is 38 percent more likely to have an accident than with no alcohol in the blood. However, with a 0.08 blood alcohol level, a driver is strikingly more likely to crash: 169 percent more likely than with no blood alcohol.

In terms of consumption, a man weighing 180 pounds can generally stay under the current legal blood alcohol limit while drinking four beers in an hour and a half. If the limit is 0.05, though, he could drink only three beers without exceeding the limit.

The Alcohol Beverage Institute objected to the NTSB's recommendation, saying that it would not stop chronic drunk drivers and would simply make criminals out of responsible, moderate drinkers.

It is up to individual states to decide whether to implement the NTSB recommendation. Meanwhile, drivers may be charged with DUI if a legitimate test shows a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher. Anybody who is stopped on suspicion of DUI should contact an attorney as soon as possible.