In a victory for drivers everywhere, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held on October 13, 2015 in State vs. Trahan that law enforcement is now required to obtain a search warrant before seeking a blood sample from a non-consenting driver.
When you are pulled over for a suspected DWI, the police officer needs probable cause before he can arrest you. Probable cause for a DWI arrest can arise from the presence of various indicia of intoxication or an admission by you that you are intoxicated. The are also various field sobriety test the officer may have you perform to determine if there is probable cause for an arrest. Common field sobriety tests include the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, reciting the alphabet backwards, walking a straight line, and maintaining your balance on one leg.
Once the officer has established probable cause for the arrest, he or she can then transport the driver to the police station for further evidentiary testing or the test which will be used as evidence in your criminal trial. One well established form of an evidentiary test is the blood test. A blood test is the most reliable test for confirming the presence and amount of alcohol and drugs in your bloodstream. Under the old regime, if you refused the blood test, an individual could be charged with the crime of gross misdemeanor test refusal. Unless the DUI incident involved an auto accident resulting in an injury to another individual, the driver could not be compelled to submit to a blood test. However, officers could then slap on the charge of refusal in reaction to a suspected drunk driver refusing the blood test.
In the new case, Trahan, the driver, was acting erratically and was arrested for DWI. At the station, an officer asked for a blood sample without first obtaining a search warrant for the blood draw, but Trahan refused and was subsequently charged with the criminal offense of refusal to test. Trahan initially pled guilty, then later appealed, arguing that the DWI-refusal statute was unconstitutional because it violated the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment guarantees citizens’ right to privacy and against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Court of Appeals initially upheld the conviction and denied Trahan’s appeal, so Trahan appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The high court held the DWI-refusal statute was in fact unconstitutional in part, specifically regarding blood tests. The case was then remanded back to the Court of Appeals.
The second time around, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that DWI refusal charges for refusing a blood test violated the constitution. A blood test is akin to an unreasonable search. Citizens therefore are constitutionally permitted to refuse them. To then turn around and criminally punish someone for refusing an unconstitutional test cannot stand.
The Court of Appeals clarified its holding by stating that blood tests are not illegal. Rather, blood samples must either be obtained via consent or a search warrant. A search warrant requires probable cause and the independent review of an impartial judge. This helps protect citizens’ interests and rights while also balancing them against the government and society’s interests in keeping streets safe.
At this point, this holding only applies to blood tests. According to this ruling and until further direction by the courts , DWI-refusal charges are still currently permissible without first seeking a search warrant for breath tests. Therefore, when an officer has probable cause to believe a driver is under the influence of alcohol, the officer can conduct a breathalyzer test in conjunction with the arrest. Pursuant to current case law. the breathalyzer test does not violate the Fourth Amendment or due process because it is performed incident to arrest. Thus, no search warrant is necessary for the test, and refusal charges can be brought if consent is not given.