NJ's Highest Court Places Limits on Use of Force in Taking Blood Samples from DWI Suspects

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
July 26, 2001 12:00 am

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NEWARK, NJ–In an important decision affecting the rights of people under arrest, the New Jersey Supreme Court today placed limits on the police’s use of physical force in extracting blood alcohol evidence from drunk-driving suspects.

“We are gratified that the Court has recognized some common-sense limitations upon the ability of police to use physical force to extract blood from a suspect,” said Ronald K. Chen, a volunteer attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and Associate Dean at Rutgers Law School in Newark.

“As the Court noted, this ruling will not unduly hamper the ability of the police to obtain evidence of intoxication, so long as it is obtained without the use of excessive force,” added Chen, who argued the case before the state’s highest court.

In State v. Ravotto, No. A-45-00, the Court reversed the conviction of Richard Ravotto, who was convicted of DWI based upon a blood sample that had been forcibly taken after he was in a car accident.

Ravotto was terrified of needles and repeatedly expressed his fear of syringes to police and hospital staff, offering to submit to a Breathalyzer test instead of providing a blood sample. He shouted and flailed as the nurse drew his blood. Police officers and others employed mechanical restraints to help hold him down.

Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Peter Verniero said that “…we consider defendant’s manifest fear of needles, his violent reaction to the bodily intrusion engendered by the search, and his willingness to take a Breathalyzer test.”

“We then weight those factors against the State’s interest in prosecuting defendant on a quasi-criminal charge in respect of which there existed considerable proofs apart from the blood evidence. In striking that balance, we are satisfied that the forced extraction of blood in this instance offended the federal and State constitutions,” the Court concluded.

The Court based its decision both upon the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as well as the New Jersey Constitution, making further review in the United States Supreme Court unlikely, Chen said.

Chen’s co-counsel, attorney Robert Bates, noted that “this is the first State Supreme Court decision in many years favorable to defendants’ Fourth Amendment rights in DWI cases.”

The ACLU took over the case after an appeals court held that no warrant was required for the search and failed to address the issue of whether the forced blood test was unreasonable because alternative means of testing for alcohol were available.

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