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Probable Cause to Search for Alcohol

This week, the Minnesota Supreme Court continued Its barrage against Fourth Amendment protections. In State v. Fawcett, Justice Gildea wrote for the majority (4-3) in a holding that allows police officers to search for evidence of controlled substances in a person’s blood after it was analyzed for evidence of alcohol despite a lack of probable cause to search for drugs.

The facts are undisputed in this case. In May of 2014, Fawcett was driving her vehicle when she got into an accident at an intersection. Because there were injuries to the other driver, officers responded and investigated Fawcett for criminal vehicular operation (CVO). Fawcett further admitted to consuming alcohol prior to driving.

Based on Fawcett’s admission of drinking, officers obtained a warrant to take a blood sample from her. A blood sample was then drawn and sent to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) to search for evidence of alcohol. The results showed no such evidence. Almost three months later, the officers received a second toxicology report, which revealed THC and Alprazolam in Fawcett’s blood. Even though Fawcett had a valid prescription for Alprazolam, the prosecution believed combining it with marijuana consumption violated the prescription.

At the trial court, Fawcett’s criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the second blood test, because it was analyzed for evidence of drugs without a warrant. The trial court granted Fawcett’s motion, but the court of appeals reversed. The court of appeals reasoned Fawcett lost her expectation of privacy in her blood sample after the police got a warrant.

The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals decision, but did so without engaging in a battle of reasonableness and expectations of privacy. It determined the warrant provided a valid basis for controlled substance testing. The supreme court gave great deference to the magistrate who issued the warrant that probable cause existed that Fawcett was under the influence of some substance, even though the warrant only specified testing for evidence of alcohol.

Because the warrant was limited to searching for evidence of alcohol, Fawcett also challenged the search warrant for not satisfying the Particularity Clause of the Fourth Amendment. The Particularity Clause requires a search warrant to describe the items to be seized with particularity, which protects against officers going on fishing expeditions and performing exploratory searches. But the court ruled that the warrant met the minimal constitutional standards for particularity, in part because the judge limited the search of Fawcett’s blood for evidence of criminal vehicular operation or homicide.

In Justice Stras’s dissent, he scathingly opposed the majority’s conclusion that probable cause to search for alcohol provides probable cause to search for drugs. Justice Stras agreed with the majority that a search warrant authorizing a search of someone’s blood for intoxicants does not eliminate a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy that the blood sample will not be tested for anything else. But, Justice Stras vehemently disagreed with the court’s interpretation of the search warrant affidavit and how the majority concluded it authorized a search for drugs when there was not a shred of evidence in the sworn document. Even though Justice Stras’s dissent disagreed with the court’s analysis, he concluded his dissent by pondering why nobody argued that the good-faith exception may have been the proper avenue to uphold the search in this case. 

Robert H. Ambrose is a DWI and criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Attorney Ambrose was named one of Minnesota’s “Ten Best” DWI Attorneys for Client Satisfaction; has a Lead Counsel Rating in Drunk Driving Defense; and is a member of the National College for DUI / DWI Defense. St. Paul criminal defense lawyer; DWI lawyer Minneapolis; and DWI lawyer St. Paul.

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