“Have you been drinking?” Legal Question Says MN Supreme Court During DWI Traffic Stop 

Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court waded into the waters of DWI traffic stops. In State v. Taylor, a cop approached a driver and asked him if he had been drinking. What is so wrong with that question, you ask?

The officer did not observe any impaired driving conduct prior to the stop. He observed the vehicle had a missing front license plate and the rear plate was obscured by snow. Upon approach, the cop noticed a case of beer in the backseat with the flap open and a few cans missing. But he did not observe any open or empty cans. Still, what is wrong with asking the driver if he was drinking? Nothing, according to the majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court. The court decided that it was a lawful expansion of a traffic stop to ask that question. It believed reasonable articulable suspicion was met. It reasoned that reasonable suspicion is not a high standard and under the totality of the circumstances, including that the case of beer was within arm’s reach and the driver’s license status was canceled inimical to public safety, was enough to legally expand the scope of the traffic stop.

The dissent vehemently disagreed with the majority’s reasoning. The dissent highlighted that having a case of beer in your backseat is a “perfectly legal act.” Allowing an officer to expand a traffic stop into a DWI investigation without reasonable suspicion of a DWI puts “too little value” on the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment and Minnesota Constitution. The dissent agreed that the bar for reasonable suspicion is not high, but it believed the majority set the bar too low.

The dissent worries that the majority’s holding erodes reasonable suspicion to the point that allows law enforcement to intrude on lawful behavior. As the bedrock of our constitutional rights, the ends do not always justify the means. The dissent noted “[t]he default rule is that police officers should not intrude into the lives and privacy of Minnesotans who are objectively engaged in lawful behavior.” At the time of the officer’s approach in this case, all he saw was the case of beer in the backseat. He also learned that the driver’s license was canceled inimical to public safety, which was later discovered because of prior DWIs. There was “no physical or other indicia of impairment whatsoever.”

Pretextual stops that lead to unlawful searches have come under intense scrutiny lately. Some jurisdictions in the Twin Cities noted that they will no longer make stops for minor things, such as air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors or suspended licenses. The majority’s holding in this case only emboldens pretextual stops and ensuing illegal searches. If cops want to make those stops and expand the seizure for minimal reasons, then this case will be used to back them up.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense attorney and DWI lawyer in Woodbury, Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him a Rising Star for the past six years; and the National Trial Lawyer’s Organization named him a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer the past seven years. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. DUI Lawyer Woodbury MN; Criminal Defense Lawyer Woodbury MN; and DWI Attorney Minnesota.