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Minnesota DWI Refusal Law Unconstitutional

In the upset of the week, and potentially year, the Minnesota Court of Appeals recently declared Minnesota’s DWI Test-Refusal Statute unconstitutional. Commonly, Minnesota appellate courts are incredibly conservative in DWI cases, especially in recent constitutional challenges,[1] which makes the decision in State v. Trahan surprising.

In a 2-1 decision, Judge Halbrooks wrote that requesting a blood test without a warrant from Mr. Trahan neither satisfied an exception to the warrant requirement nor passed strict scrutiny. Trahan’s DWI case was not factually unusual, it was rather incredibly routine. Trahan was stopped for speeding and driving erratically. He had difficulty standing up and smelled strongly of alcoholic beverages. After his arrest, he was read the Minnesota’s Implied Consent Advisory and agreed to take a urine test. After believing Trahan tampered with the urine sample, the officer asked Trahan to submit to a blood test and he said no. Trahan then received charges for DWI Test Refusal and he later plead guilty to refusing to test.

On December 16, 2014, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided to grant Trahan’s petition for review, but stayed its review until it decided State v. Bernard. After rejecting Bernard’s argument to find Minnesota’s DWI Test-Refusal statute unconstitutional in a refusal to submit to a breath test case, the supreme court reversed and remanded Trahan to the court of appeals to apply Bernard.

The glimmer of hope left by Bernard was placed in footnote 6. It stated “the question of a blood or urine test incident to arrest is not before us, and we express no opinion as to whether a blood or urine test of a suspected drunk driver could be justified as a search incident to arrest.” The additional nugget of optimism was mentioned in the same footnote “the differences between a blood test and a breath test are material, and not the least of those differences is the less-invasive nature of breath testing.” (quoting Skinner v. Ry. Labor Execs. Ass’n).

The majority in Trahan took the clues from Bernard and applied it. After exhausting exceptions to the warrant requirement,[2] the court determined that criminalizing Trahan’s refusal to submit to a warrantless blood test violated substantive due process. To do so, the court needed to first decide that refusing to submit to an unconstitutional warrantless blood test implicates a fundamental right. According the facts of Trahan’s case, the majority believed it implicated the Fourth Amendment fundamental right to be free from unreasonable searches.

After implicating a fundamental right, the court had to determine whether the government’s compelling interest to protect the public from drunk drivers was narrowly tailored. It is undisputed that the state has a compelling interest to protect public safety from impaired drivers on the road, but there are other viable options to serve that interest than to criminalize refusing to submit to a warrantless search of a blood test. Those options include offering a breath test instead or obtaining a warrant for a blood test. A point hotly debated by the Judge Ross’s dissent.

It is practically a lock that the Minnesota Supreme Court will review the court of appeals decision in Trahan. In part two of this blog series we will examine the potential impact until the supreme court inevitably issues its decision on the matter.

Robert H. Ambrose is a DWI / DUI and criminal defense lawyer based in Minneapolis. He was named a “10 Best” DWI attorney in Minnesota for client satisfaction. For a free consultation, please contact our office at 612-547-3199 or email at: ambroselegal@icloud.com.  

[1] On October 23, 2013, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided State v. Brooks. The court addressed whether the United States Supreme Court decision in Missouri v. McNeely made it unconstitutional to request blood and urine samples from a suspected drunk driver who later submits to the test. The court determined that Brooks consented to the test under the Fourth Amendment and excused the need for a warrant. Earlier this year, in State v. Bernard, the Minnesota Supreme Court shot down a challenge to Minnesota’s Test Refusal Law on a similar challenge. Bernard refused to submit to a warrantless breath test and the court determined that the search-incident-to-arrest exception excused the need for law enforcement to secure a warrant.

[2] The court evaluated search incident to arrest and exigent circumstances as potential exceptions to the warrant requirement. Both parties agreed that a blood test was far too intrusive to fit into the search-incident-to-arrest exception. Because this was a routine DWI case, no exigent circumstances existed.

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