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Published: Wednesday, 6/25/2008

Ohio police to get more power in DUI cases


COLUMBUS - Ohio is about to give police more leeway than most states to force a blood or urine test on certain people suspected of drunken driving.

The bill, which Gov. Ted Strickland is expected to sign later this week, would apply to people with at least two convictions for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It would take effect in late September.

"The governor is signing this bill because he is concerned about drunk driving in Ohio and because he believes this will further discourage drunk driving," said Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey.

Under current law, authorities must get a warrant from a judge to test blood or urine for alcohol or drugs on people who don't initially give their consent.

A few other states require mandatory blood testing but only when there has been a fatal crash or great bodily harm and police have probable cause that a driver is intoxicated.

"Driving in Ohio is a privilege not a right," said state Sen. Timothy Grendell, the Chesterland Republican who sponsored the bill.

"We can precondition that privilege on any condition we want that helps keep the other drivers on the road safe," Senator Grendell said.

About 30,000 people in Ohio have been convicted of drunken driving five or more times, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

Civil liberties advocates say the bill is unconstitutional, and they expect to challenge the law once it is enforced.

Requiring a warrant is the way that the judicial system can play its role in checking the power of the state, said Jeffrey Gamso, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

"If it were really hard to get a warrant it would be one thing, but they can get a warrant in a hurry," he said. "There's always a judge on duty."

Grendell said a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision provides a solid legal foundation for his bill.

"The ACLU, in my opinion, is just blowing smoke," he said.

In its 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that authorities could compel a driver suspected of drunken driving to give a blood sample.

The court ruled that requiring the sample doesn't violate Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination because the right refers to communications, not bodily fluids.

Authorities can get fingerprints and DNA from suspects without violating the amendment.

The court also said forcing a suspect to give blood doesn't violate Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizures when authorities have probable cause to believe a suspect has been drinking.

Variations of the legal questions involved have played out in other cases. In 2003, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned a state law that required blood tests on any driver involved in a traffic crash with serious injuries or deaths, saying that it amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure because probable cause was not required.

Grendell said Ohio's law is necessary because of the number of repeat drunk driving offenders who have learned how to beat the system by refusing consent to chemical tests.

Many repeat offenders don't care that they lose their license for a period of time after refusing a blood or urine test because they continue to drive with suspended licenses.

"There's no reason to make it convenient for the drunk," Grendell said.

Grendell introduced his bill in early 2007 with the backing of the parents of 18-year-old Hiram College students Grace Chamberlain and Andrew Hopkins, who were killed in a March, 2006, accident caused by a drunk driver with 11 convictions.

Grendell's bill also requires treatment for alcoholism for many repeat offenders, increases penalties for repeat drunken driving offenses and in some cases requires a convicted drunken driver to attach a device to his vehicle's ignition system that can detect alcohol from a breath sample.

If alcohol is detected, the car won't start.

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