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NJ Court Outlines Breath Test Requirements; Illinois Standards Differ

A recent New Jersey State Supreme Court ruling regarding breath test consent has spurred a nationwide debate about the degree police officers must communicate to non-English speaking drivers the consequences of refusing a breath test. State courts around the country vary on the required level of direction. Illinois courts, in particular, have adopted a less accommodating approach.

The State Supreme Court in New Jersey recently ruled that non-English speaking suspects pulled over for drunk driving, "must be informed of the consequences of refusing to take a breath test in a language they understand."

The ruling came about after a man from El Salvador was pulled over in 2005 for drunk driving and refused to take a breath test after an officer read him, in English, the consequences for refusing the test. However, the man didn't understand. He was later charged and convicted for failing to take the breath test and subsequently lost his license for seven months.

Courts in various states seem to differ on the procedures officers must follow when communicating, to non-English speaking drivers, the legal consequences for failing to take a breath test.

Illinois Breathalyzer Consent Requirements

In Illinois, along with five other states, the law requires the statement must simply be read, not necessarily understood. States following this method reason that drivers must understand the law as a prerequisite to driving on the road, thus giving implied consent.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey disagrees with this approach. They compare this method to the translation services states offer when administering Miranda rights and court proceedings and argue that an officer's failure to communicate breath test laws in a language drivers can understand amounts to a denial of due process.

Conversely, seven other states, including Alaska, Iowa, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin, require a more heightened standard. In these states, officers must make "reasonable efforts" to ensure non-English speaking individuals understand the consequences for refusing the breath test if they are pulled over. The definition of "reasonable" is subjective to some degree, however, the interpretation focuses on an officer's good-faith efforts to communication effectively.

So far, New Jersey is the only state that requires an actual translation of breathalyzer testing laws and consequences to non-English speaking drivers.