In February, the Georgia Supreme Court handed down a major unanimous decision in favor of the rights of motorists pulled over by police. The justices ordered that either the state amend its constitution or lawmakers revamp procedures for DUI stops.

The resulting legislation, now Georgia law, is the biggest change to the state’s DUI laws in years.

A routine traffic stop winds up in the Supreme Court

In August 2015, a 26-year-old Athens resident was stopped on suspicion she was driving under the influence. The officer claims he smelled alcohol on her breath and her speech suggested intoxication. She agreed to sobriety tests such as examinations of her eyes, which she failed. She was then asked to take a breath test.

The officer read a required text notifying her of the consequences of refusing chemical sobriety test and that her refusal to be test could be used against her in court.

All of this is routine and common in DUI stops, as was her refusal to take a breath test. What was much more unusual was her appealing her conviction all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Protection against compelled self-incrimination

The Court agreed that the state’s constitution prohibits authorities from compelling Georgians to incriminate themselves, and that using a suspect’s refusal to take a breath test against them is, in essence, a way of forcing a confession.

Georgians have a right to refuse to do something that incriminates them (take a breath test). Using the exercise of that right as evidence against you in court as evidence of guilt is unconstitutional in Georgia. However, the court also held that blood and urine tests did not violate this prohibition.

Drivers, police and attorneys prepare for a new era

“The impact was immediate,” reports the Atlanta Journal Constitution. On the day of the ruling, prosecutors warned Georgia law enforcement that a huge increase in warrants for blood and urine tests would result.

A suitable medical facility is needed to take such tests in an effective and legal way, and Georgia’s size and diversity makes a one-size-fits-all solution impractical. For example, in some jurisdictions the tests can be done in jail while others need a hospital.

A previous post discussed some of the new questions and answers for drivers and defense attorneys.