Minnesota Supreme Court upholds DWI test refusal law

The Minnesota Supreme Court has upheld the law that makes it a crime to refuse a chemical test for intoxication, even without warrant. The 5-2 decision was authored by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea.

In the court's opinion, police can give you pat down when they arrest you, even without a warrant, so they can also check your blood alcohol content – they just need probable cause.

The law

Refusal to submit to chemical test crime. It is a crime for any person to refuse to submit to a chemical test of the person's blood, breath, or urine under section 169A.51 (chemical tests for intoxication), or169A.52 (test refusal or failure; revocation of license).

Read the full text of Minnesota's DWI law at https://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/statutes/?id=169A.20 

The case

The Supreme Court case goes all the way back to Aug, 5, 2012, when police received a report of three drunk men attempting to get a boat out of the water at a boat launch in South St. Paul. When officers arrived at the boat launch, a witness said the men's truck became stuck in the river while they were trying to pull their boat out of the water. The witness also said that the driver of the truck was in his underwear.

The officers approached the three men and saw the truck hanging over the edge of the pavement. One of the men, William Robert Bernard, was in his underwear and holding the keys to the truck. Bernard admitted to police that he had been drinking, but he and the other men denied driving the truck.

Multiple witnesses identified Bernard as the driver and described him stumbling from the boat to the truck. As the officers questioned Bernard, they smelled alcohol on his breath and took note of his bloodshot, watery eyes.

Bernard refused to perform field sobriety tests, so was arrested on suspicion of DWI and taken to the police station. Officers told Bernard that Minnesota law required him to take a chemical test, that refusal to take a test was a crime, and that he had a right to consult with an attorney so long as there was not an unreasonable delay in the administration of the test. Bernard called his mother instead of a lawyer, then told the officers he didn't need any more time and refused to take the breath test.

How the lower courts ruled

The district court ruled the test refusal law was not unconstitutional on its face, but dismissed the charges after concluding police lacked a lawful basis to search Bernard without a warrant.

The court of appeals reversed the decision, ruling that prosecuting Bernard for test refusal did not violate his constitutional rights because the officers had probable cause and could have secured a warrant to search Bernard's breath.

High court ruling

Read the Minnesota Supreme Court opinion - A13-1245

ACLU upset

ACLU-MN executive director Charles Samuelson released the following statement after the ruling:

"We are disappointed that the Minnesota Supreme Court failed to protect Minnesotans fundamental right to assert their rights and refuse a warrantless search. We want to thank Justice Page and Justice Stras for their dissent, and agree with their thoughts that "the court today fundamentally departs from longstanding Fourth Amendment principles, and nullifies the warrant requirement in nearly every drunk-driving case."

"The Minnesota Supreme Court has set a dangerous precedent by first, allowing police to do intrusive warrantless searches of biological material taken from inside a person's body merely because they had enough evidence to arrest them; and second, allowing people to be charged with a crime for refusing to submit to a warrantless search. Imagine if the police could charge us with a crime if we refused to allow them into our houses without a warrant, people would be outraged."

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