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Wash. court: Police can force blood-alcohol tests

OLYMPIA — Suspected drunken drivers who refuse a voluntary blood-alcohol test can still be forced to submit blood or breath samples under a judge’s warrant, the state Supreme Court ruled today.

The 7-2 decision clarifies the state’s implied consent law, which says people suspected of drunken driving must give up their license for at least a year if they refuse to take a blood-alcohol test.

One part of the law says police still have the right to obtain a warrant for a suspect’s breath or blood samples if the suspect refuses a voluntary test. But it also says “no test shall be given” if a suspect refuses, unless that person is dead, unconscious, has seriously injured someone else or has been arrested for vehicular assault or vehicular homicide.

The court’s majority, led by Justice Susan Owens, said the Legislature clearly wanted to preserve search warrants as an avenue for collecting blood or breath samples. The “no test shall be given” portion of the law merely deals with additional exceptions to a voluntary test.

Ruling otherwise, the court said, would give drunken driving suspects the ability to block all blood-alcohol tests, “an absurd result for a law intended to assist in the investigation and prosecution of drunk drivers.”

The court’s two dissenters, led by Justice Richard Sanders, said the majority wasn’t interpreting the law correctly.

Rather than authorizing a separate route for blood-alcohol tests, Sanders wrote, the law should be read to allow search warrants for previously collected evidence, such as a hospital’s blood samples. Justice James Johnson joined Sanders in dissent.

The case revolved around Robert St. John, who refused a blood-alcohol test after he was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash. Seattle police got a Municipal Court warrant to test St. John, and the test was conducted at the hospital.

St. John also argued that police should be required to tell a suspect that a blood-alcohol test may be conducted under a search warrant if the suspect refuses a voluntary test. The court disagreed.

The case is No. 81992-1, City of Seattle v. St. John.

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