Many college-aged students across the country are familiar with the routine of the late night police encounter, which often ends in the student being forced to take a breathalyzer test on the vaguest of suspicions. But a series of recent judicial rulings has found a Troy city ordinance that permits police to conduct preliminary breath tests for minors without a warrant to be unconstitutional. These rulings were correct to uphold the protections that the Fourth Amendment provides against unwarranted searches and seizures regardless of age, and when the case makes its way to higher courts, these courts should rule in favor of protecting young people’s rights.
According to a Sept. 11 article in the Detroit Free Press, the court proceedings were spawned by an incident in which a group of young adults leaving a party was stopped by Troy Police officers. Suspected of underage drinking, the police administered preliminary breathalyzer tests. According to testimony, members of the group were told that failure to comply could lead to incarceration. But in court, the attorney for Emran Chowdhury — one of those who were tested — was able to block admission of the test as evidence, arguing it was taken in violation of Chowdhury’s constitutional rights. The court ruled in Chowdhury’s favor, stating that a preliminary breath test constitutes a search as laid out in the Fourth Amendment, that consent under duress does not meet the legal requirements and that in such cases a search warrant must be obtained.
Any incident where constitutional rights are impinged is atrocious. The Fourth Amendment guarantees citizens the right to be “secure in their persons … against unreasonable searches.” The idea that an ordinance could be in direct conflict with this important constitutional right is profoundly distressing. The courts right to recognize this breach of rights, and the local governments — even those beyond Troy — shouldn’t hesitate to reform their laws respectively.
In addition to their unconstitutional underpinnings, such ordinances make teenagers easy prey for law enforcement. Teenagers are often unaware of their legal rights, and can fall victim to intimidation. Police shouldn’t be afforded the opportunity to stop and search every person under the age of 21 who happens to be out at night. In the Troy case, the police even admitted that they didn’t ask for search warrants, and the court rebuked the officers for not investigating how arduous it would be to simply obtain a search warrant. Such a case provides a clear example of why local ordinances should not empower police at the expense of young people’s rights.
It’s also a shame that these rights are being trampled in defense of a drinking age that may not actually be appropriate. It’s not clear that raising the drinking age to 21 has done anything to curb binge drinking. In fact, there are more deaths and accidents each year due to underage binge drinking since the National Minimum Drinking Age Act made 21 the de facto drinking age in 1984.
With any hope, higher courts will concur that young people’s Fourth Amendment rights are worth protecting.