Court: DWI blood test, search warrant needed in Minnesota

Published 10:19 am Thursday, October 15, 2015

By Elizabeth Mohr

St. Paul Pioneer Press

If police want to test the blood of a suspected drunken driver, that’s fine, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday, but they’ll need to get a search warrant instead of falling back on DWI test-refusal charges.

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Because drawing and testing the blood of a suspected drunken driver qualifies as a search, the driver is protected from unreasonable search by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the court said.

That means if a drunken driver doesn’t allow a warrantless blood test — barring emergency circumstances, such as preserving evidence that could become unobtainable — he or she should not be charged with a crime for refusing the test, a felony in Minnesota.

In a 2-1 ruling issued Tuesday, the appeals court reversed the conviction of Todd Trahan, who was arrested by a Ramsey County sheriff’s deputy for suspected drunken driving in October 2012. It remanded the case to the district court.

The Ramsey County attorney’s office, which prosecuted Trahan, said it plans to appeal the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Trahan’s rights to due process were violated because he was charged with refusing a warrantless blood test, the appeals court ruled.

Trahan’s case was a fairly routine drunken-driving stop. According to court records, the arresting deputy did not perform field sobriety tests because of Trahan’s behavior. Once in custody, Trahan agreed to provide a urine sample, but there’s a dispute as to whether he tampered with the sample. When the deputy asked him to instead submit to a blood draw, Trahan refused and was charged with DWI test refusal. Trahan had previous driving-while-impaired convictions and was driving without a license.

As part of a deal, Trahan pleaded guilty to refusing the test and was sentenced to five years in prison.

On appeal, Trahan argued that his guilty plea was invalid and that the refusal statute is unconstitutional. The appeals court initially upheld the lower court rulings and Trahan’s conviction.

The Minnesota Supreme Court in April “reversed our holding on the constitutionality of the test-refusal statute and remanded to this court for reconsideration of that issue,” the appeals court said in its Tuesday ruling.

The Supreme Court this year ruled in a different case that police may administer a breath test without a warrant if it’s part of a valid arrest for drunken driving. Thus, charging someone with refusal of a breath test does not violate their rights to due process.

But the Supreme Court left open the issue of blood tests.

In its review of the Trahan case, the appellate court determined that “a blood draw is undeniably intrusive: a needle is inserted into the skin to extract blood.” Because it’s an intrusive search, unlike a breath test, a warrantless blood test would be unconstitutional, Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks wrote for the two-judge majority.

“Because a warrantless search of Trahan’s blood would have been unconstitutional under these circumstances, Trahan’s fundamental right to be free from unreasonable searches is implicated,” and his refusal of an unconstitutional test should not be punished, Halbrooks wrote.

Although the state has an interest in keeping drunken drivers off the road, the appeals court cited “other viable options,” including: charging someone without testing their blood-alcohol level, charging someone with refusal if they refuse to take a breath test, or obtaining the required warrants to test bodily fluids.

“We recognize that the available alternatives may not be as efficient as the current procedure under the test-refusal statute,” Halbrooks wrote. “But these alternatives serve the state’s compelling interest in securing the safety of its roadways without infringing on a driver’s fundamental right to refuse an unreasonable search of his blood. Because the test-refusal statute as applied fails strict scrutiny, Trahan’s right to due process under the Minnesota and United States constitutions was violated.”