SCOTUS ruling on blood-alcohol tests leads Iowa Supreme Court to delay boating-while-intoxicated case until next term

by Ryan Koopmans | June 24, 2016

By Ryan Koopmans

As Rox wrote yesterday, the Iowa Supreme Court is (or at least was) expected to release a decision next week in State v. Pettijohn, a case about (among other things) whether Iowa’s implied-consent law–the law that punishes drivers who refuse to take a blood-alcohol test–is constitutional.  The case was argued in September, which makes it the Court’s longest outstanding case.  And because the Iowa Supreme Court has been sharply divided over search-and-seizure issues, it is also one of the most anticipated rulings of the term.  

Or at least it was.  Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Birchfield v. North Dakota that these so-called implied-consent statutes don’t violate the Fourth Amendment when it comes to breathalyzer tests, but that they do violate the Fourth Amendment when it comes to blood tests, unless the police get a warrant.  So you can be punished for refusing to take a breath test; but you can’t be punished for refusing a blood test.

In light of that ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court has put its decision in Pettijohn on hold.  Yesterday afternoon, Chief Justice Mark Cady issued an order stating that the parties (Dale Pettijohn and the State of Iowa) must submit additional briefs to the Court that “address the impact of the Birchfield decision on the issues in this case.”  And they have until August 1 to do so. 

Pettijohn took a breath test; not a blood test.  So if anything, Birchfield is likely to cut against him.  But the Iowa Supreme Court could decide the case differently under the Iowa Constitution; and they’ve done that very thing several times the past five years.  But Birchfield could have just switched the vote from “reverse” (Pettijohn wins) to “affirm” (Pettijohn loses). So it might be a case of bad timing for Pettijohn, who thought he was going to get a decision next week.

Pettijohn’s case is different than Birchfield, though, in that he was boating while drinking rather than driving while drinking.  And he says that matters, because (in his view) driving is a privilege and using public waterways is a right.  We’ll see if that makes a difference.

In any event, we won’t likely know until sometime next fall when the justices return for the 2016-2017 term.


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