The Minnesota Supreme Court decided an interesting, and likely important case earlier this week regarding the constitutionality of the state’s implied-consent law. The High Court ultimately decided that because the defendant, Wesley Brooks, consented to the having a chemical test performed following a drunk driving traffic stop there was no violation of the man’s Fourth Amendment rights.
In its majority opinion, the Court identified the issue in the case as whether the police violated Brooks’ Fourth Amendment rights when they took blood and urine samples from the man without first obtaining a search warrant. The Court heard evidence on the matter and decided unanimously that Brooks himself handed over the incriminating samples in each of his DUI cases and that because Brooks made the decision to submit to these chemical tests, police officers never needed to seek a judge’s permission with a formal search warrant.
In issuing its opinion, the Court sidestepped an important argument made by Brooks’ defense attorney and that is given Minnesota’s current implied-consent law it is impossible for a person in Brooks’ position to ever truly consent to a search given the harsh penalties he or she will be subjected to if they refuse a chemical test. As Brooks’ lawyers pointed out, the state’s implied-consent law says that anyone who refuses to agree to a chemical test to determine their blood alcohol concentration has committed a crime and will be punished accordingly, usually with automatic suspension of his or her driver’s license.
Brooks made the point that saying drivers truly have a choice in such situations is preposterous, given the harm they will face if they “choose” to refuse. The Court disagreed with Brooks’ argument, saying that the state’s implied-consent law does not amount to coercion. The majority wrote that just because criminal penalties are attached to a refusal to submit to a chemical test does not mean that the defendant lacks genuine choice.
The Court went on to say that in Brooks’ case he was read the state’s implied-consent law by the arresting officer, something that clearly informed him of his legal options. The Court found that when someone has been told that he or she can say no to a search and then decides to submit anyway that this can be said to be a voluntary decision and not one based on coercion.
Thankfully, one justice felt differently with regards to the implied-consent law. In a concurring opinion, Justice Stras wrote that he had trouble accepting the argument that any choice regarding submission to a chemical test is voluntary when suspects are informed that refusal to submit will be deemed a criminal act. Justice Stras described Minnesota’s implied-consent law as “coercive” and in the context of this case, unconstitutional.
Stras’ concurrence offered hope to some criminal defense experts who say that it is high time that these implied-consent laws be subjected to some serious scrutiny. Brooks’ attorney has said that he hopes to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court so that there can be a serious national conversation about the validity of these punitive measures.
To read the full opinion, click here.