Students may not remember their first steps or their first words, but many of them, depending on their state of mind at the time, remember their first breathalyzer test. For those whose run-in with the law occurred on Ann Arbor’s sidewalks, chances are good that the test was given in clear violation of their constitutional rights. Breathalyzers have been used for years as quick, effective methods to determine blood alcohol levels, but Michigan stands out as the only state with a law allowing police officers to administer tests to pedestrians under the age of 21 without a warrant. The American Civil Liberties Union is now challenging this law, citing the tests as an illegal search and violation of privacy. The Ann Arbor Police Department has found this law so draconian that they elect not to exercise the authority given to them, but all too often, students walking around on weekend nights are stopped by the overzealous Department of Public Safety and forced to take a breathalyzer test or face a $100 fine. Regardless of the outcome of the ACLU’s challenge, DPS should heed the example of its city-run counterpart and decline to enforce the offending portion of the drinking law.
In 2003, a local ordinance similar to the state law was challenged in Bay City and ruled unconstitutional. Like the state law, the ordinance violated the Fourth Amendment as an illegal search without a warrant. That same standard should be applied to this law, which also clearly violates the rights of those under the age of 21.
The law provides police officers with another tactic to enforce misguided underage drinking laws. DPS and the AAPD dole out hundreds of minor-in-possession charges annually, but there has been no evidence to suggest that fear of being stopped on the street truly deters those who want to drink; stricter policy enforcement has not been shown to reduce the rates of drinking-related violence or alcohol poisoning. The breathalyzer policy is effective, however in making students too afraid to take their friends to the hospital should they need medical attention, a consequence that can have dangerous ramifications.
DPS has continued to force students to submit to breathalyzers in their impossible dream to banish underage drinking from campus. Although DPS was designed to promote public safety, it instead disproportionately focuses its energies toward chasing down pedestrians on Friday nights. Allocating these resources toward preventing crimes of actual significance and with identifiable victims, like burglary and sexual assault, would be more effective and would promote a safer campus environment.
People under the age of 21 should be afforded the same rights as older members of society and not forced to endure unconstitutional searches, even if they show the audacity to walk outside at night. DPS should respect students’ rights by following the lead of AAPD and refraining from issuing citations to those who refuse consent to breathalyzer tests.