A recent case before the Minnesota Court of Appeals dealt with the rights of a DWI suspect to refuse a breath test in a Minnesota drunk driving case. In the opinion, the Court ruled that it is legal for the state to criminalize a suspect’s decision to refuse to submit to a breath test.
The case began when William Bernard was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. At the time of his arrest, Bernard refused to submit to a breath test after being asked by the arresting officer. This decision violated Minnesota’s implied consent law and, as a result, led to a test refusal charge for Bernard. Specifically, prosecutors charged Bernard with two counts of DWI-Test Refusal.
A lower court dismissed the test refusal charge against Bernard, reasoning that it was unconstitutional for Minnesota to criminalize a refusal to submit to a breath test when that same test could not ordinarily take place without a warrant. The lower court relied on the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Missouri v. McNeely, saying that the case made clear that the dissipation of alcohol in a driver’s bloodstream is not enough to justify a warrantless search. The matter was then appealed and the decision ultimately overturned.
The judge’s decision in this case began by noting that previous court decision in Minnesota have established the right of the state to criminalize a breath test refusal when the state could have obtained a search warrant or shows that the situation would fall under an exception to the usual warrant requirements. The exception that is most frequently used to support the criminalization of breath tests is exigent circumstances. Specially, prosecutors argue that the dissipation of alcohol in a suspect’s bloodstream requires speedy action before evidence is lost.
The Minnesota Supreme Court has backed up this idea, deciding in State v. Shriner that warrantless blood tests are constitutional based on the exigent circumstances created by the dissipation of alcohol in a driver’s bloodstream. Bernard argued that the recent McNeely decision should alter Minnesota’s interpretation of the law, a contention the Court of Appeals ultimately disagreed with.
The judges decided that imposing criminal penalties for refusing to submit to a breath test is a reasonable means of achieving a permissible state objective. The Court held that because the arresting officer in this case had probable cause to believe that Bernard was impaired, he also had the option of obtaining a blood test by getting a search warrant. That means that at the time Bernard was asked to submit to a test, the officer had the ability to receive a warrant. The Court said that this makes Bernard’s case different from the warrantless test at issue in McNeely. Rather than force Bernard to submit to the test based on a search warrant, the officer gave Bernard an option to voluntarily provide a breath sample. The Court held that Bernard’s refusal could constitutionally be penalized under Minnesota law.
To read the full opinion, click here.