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Why did the Minnesota Supreme Court publish an opinion on a stop issue in a routine DWI case last week in State v. Morse? Stop issues are often challenged at the district court level; and sometimes taken to the court of appeals. But the Minnesota Supreme Court? Unlike the court of appeals, it does not have to hear every case. Why State v. Morse?

It appears the primary reason the supreme court decided Morse was to reverse the court of appeals. If it agreed with the court of appeals, there is a fat chance it hears this case. The supremes did not seem happy that the court of appeals considered sua sponte the constitutionality of Minnesota’s right-turn statute.[1] Neither party raised the issue at the district court, so the supreme court believed it was improper for the court of appeals to do so.

The facts of this case are brief and unspectacular. Morse was driving his pickup truck around bar closing time in downtown Worthington, Minnesota. An officer began to follow him. He noticed Morse take a right turn onto a street without a painted center stripe. During the turn, Morse’s pickup neared the center of the road. The officer also witnessed Morse’s truck drift and later stopped his vehicle. Eventually, the officer arrested Morse on suspicion of DWI. At the police station, Morse submitted to an evidentiary breath test, which revealed an alcohol concentration of .19. Morse’s defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the breath test, because it was obtained after an illegal traffic stop.

At the court of appeals, the prosecution argued Morse violated the right-turn statute by not turning “as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.”[2] The court of appeals reasoned the definition of “practicable” is inherently ambiguous and vague. After viewing the squad video showing Morse’s alleged driving conduct, the court of appeals determined he did not violate the right-turn statute. The court held the stop was improper, because there was no traffic violation to supplement the single weave (wide right turn).

After dismissing the court of appeals’ constitutional analysis of the right-turn statute, the Minnesota Supreme Court evaluated whether the officer had reasonable articulable suspicion to stop Morse’s vehicle under the totality of the circumstances. It reasoned that weaving alone can support the basis for a stop, even if a traffic violation does not occur. The high court also agreed with the district court’s reasoning to uphold the stop on based on the following reasons: Morse made a wide right turn; the events occurred around bar closing time; Morse was leaving an area of bars; and the officer’s training and experience. That is right ladies and gentlemen, the Minnesota Supreme Court agrees that driving around bar closing time in the area of bars supports a basis for a traffic stop. Also, an officer’s general training and experience supports the stop too. When the court quoted State v. Timberlake for the proposition that the “reasonable-suspicion standard is not high,” it was not kidding. The supreme court likely lowered it to the floor in this opinion.   

Challenging the basis for the initial stop, or seizure, is not easy in a DWI case.[3] But, successful challenges still occur often enough to make a challenge worthwhile. For a free consultation, please call us at 651-800-4842 or email: ambroselegal@icloud.com.

Robert H. Ambrose is a DWI lawyer and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a member of the National College of DUI / DWI Defense; and is a “Ten Best” DWI Attorney for Client Satisfaction in Minnesota. DUI lawyer St. Paul; Minnesota DWI attorney defense lawyer; and Minneapolis DWI lawyers.

[1] See Minn. Stat. § 169.19, subd. 1(a).

[2] Id.

[3] Read our previous blog post about State v. Hegwood and the basis for DWI stops here; and our video about challenging DWI cases here.

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