You’re a freshman in Ann Arbor, and it’s time to live out those Michigan Football Saturday dreams. You’re ready for the first game of 2013. You put on your maize and blue and head out to pregame with your new Markley Residence Hall friends. Everything is going as planned: red Solo cup in hand, dancing on a front lawn, not a care in the world. You make it to the game, revved up along with the rest of the chanting crowd. You get ready to enter the Big House.
Suddenly, a cop stops you on the sidewalk and asks you to blow a Breathalyzer test. You freeze. You’re not sure how much you’ve had but it’s probably over the legal limit of .08 percent. Actually, your mind races, that doesn’t even matter.
You’re only 18 years old! The .08 rule only works for legal adults. You see your life flash before your eyes and you get ready to hurl. You’ve been caught.
Cops love to stop college kids on game day or on a Saturday night and ask to test their BAC. As a minor, the law says you cannot imbibe alcohol. And your parents always told you to listen to the cops. But you have rights. The police invade our privacy as students, as pedestrians and as individuals when they submit us to Breathalyzer testing under these circumstances.
So, do you have to take that breath test? Will you get hauled off to jail if you refuse? The answer is no. What so many college minors fail to realize is that in the state of Michigan you are not required to take a breath test as a pedestrian — underage or not. You can refuse as long as the police don’t have a warrant with your name on it. This case law may not apply, mind you, if you are driving a car or even if you are inside Michigan Stadium with a beer in your hand. However, it undoubtedly violates students’ rights to privacy to be asked to blow a breath test while simply walking on campus.
Let’s break it down. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures” without a search warrant. This was included to protect our privacy after the British soldiers of pre-Revolutionary America would search the settlers at random. In 2003, U.S. District Court Judge David Lawson ruled that allowing police to stop pedestrian students under the age of 21 on campus and ask them to blow into a Breathalyzer violates the Fourth Amendment because, first, a breath test constitutes a “search” and, second, searches without warrants are illegal under the U.S. Constitution.
The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld this decision in 2009, saying that it is unconstitutional to search a minor without a warrant. The American Civil Liberties Union considered this case a breakthrough for students’ rights because it protects our ability to walk down the street in privacy.
Unfortunately, even though the law is on our side, that doesn’t mean the police won’t still ask you to take a breath test without a warrant. As their role is to protect students, police should be looking to educate students rather than taking advantage of ignorance.
Furthermore, if you do take the test and blow over .02 percent — the legal limit for a minor — you can be arrested and/or given a ticket for a Minor in Possession, a charge that can have serious long term implications on your future. Just by holding an alcoholic beverage in public, you’re still subject to arrest and a Minor in Possession citation — with or without being Breathalyzed as evidence. MIPs make you subject to criminal punishment and stay on your criminal record forever, hampering your chances of getting a job in the future. Since a high number of students participate in underage drinking, this penalty is a harsh one to pin on so many students’ futures.
Considering the large incidence of underage drinking, the MIP penalty is also failing to serve its purpose as an incentive to reduce drinking among minors. If the goal is to ensure student safety and discourage illegal drinking, alcohol education — as well as trust between students and law enforcement — needs to be encouraged more than the targeting of students with excessively harsh punishments.
Be cautious if you drink, but understand that if a police officer asks you to take a breath test as a pedestrian in the street, it’s within your rights as an American citizen to refuse. This isn’t an endorsement for going hog-wild and bucking authority on game day or in any other drinking situation. In fact, you should generally listen to the police and follow the law. But always be aware. You have constitutional rights to privacy as an individual living in the United States — underage student or not. So know your rights, Wolverines, and please drink responsibly.
Maura Levine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.