In State v. Fawcett, #A15-0938 (24 August 2016), the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s ruling that a search warrant obtained to test the blood of a suspected drunk driver who was found to have been under the influence of a controlled substance—not alcohol—at the time of serious automobile accident did not violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment protection against illegal searches and seizures. The following is a summary of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in this case.
Facts of the Case
On 24 May 2014, defendant Fawcett drove her vehicle through a red light and into an intersection, causing an automobile accident that resulted in serious injuries to the other vehicle’s driver. The police—upon questioning Fawcett—suspected she was under the influence of alcohol as they smelled alcohol on her breath and she admitted that she did, in fact, consume “two or three beers” that evening. The officers obtained a warrant for Fawcett’s blood for “evidence of the crime of criminal vehicular operation/homicide.”
Having found no ethyl alcohol in her blood, the lab conducted additional tests for the presence of controlled substances and found a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) derivative as well as Alprazolam (Xanax). Fawcett had a valid prescription for Alprazolam at the time.
On 16 October 2014, the State filed a criminal complaint against Fawcett for criminal vehicular operation (Minn. Stat. § 609.21, subd. 1(2)(ii)(2012) that criminalized causing injury to another while negligently operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance.
Fawcett sought to suppress the lab report on the grounds that the warrant failed to permit the lab to look for evidence of controlled substance use because the officer who filed the affidavit specified that he believed she was under the influence of alcohol. Whereas the district court suppressed the evidence, the court of appeals reversed on the grounds that Fawcett did not retain any ownership over blood that was lawfully removed from her veins Even though Fawcett did not allege any police misconduct, she asserted that the blood should have ONLY been tested for alcohol and the subsequent test violated the Fourth Amendment’s Particularity Clause. This clause specifies that all warrants “shall particularly describe the things to be seized” to prevent overbroad searches and seizures. Thus, the warrant must “describe with particularity the items to be seized” and said itemization must appear in all supporting documentation in the warrant. Further, the clause requires particularity with respect to “the person whose property is to be searched.”
The court of appeals overturned the district court’s suppression order.
The fundamental issue State v. Fawcett was whether the search warrant and accompanying officer’s affidavit permitted the taken blood to be tested ONLY for the presence of alcohol and whether the judge incorrectly issued the warrant that permitted testing for controlled substances also.
Holding and Rationale
The appellate court held that the warrant did not specify the type of testing, and even though the supporting affidavit specifically mentioned alcohol, the alleged facts in the warrant application provided the issuing judge a “fair probability” that evidence of Fawcett’s guilt would be found in her blood. Under the statute, an individual is guilty if s/he causes injury to another person as a result of driving negligently while under the influence of:
- Controlled substance(s)
- Any combination of the two
The officer who applied for the warrant had probable cause to believe that Fawcett was guilty, even though he believed she was under the influence of alcohol. However, the appellate court ruled that the issuing judge was not bound by the officer’s inferences but could draw his own reasonable assumptions from the presented evidence. Even though Fawcett alleged that the vagueness of the warrant’s language could subject her blood to other tests like DNA, disease indicators, or her genome, the appellate court held that the scope of the warrant was sufficiently particular to limit testing only to potential evidence that Fawcett was driving under the influence of something, in violation of the law.
The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the warrant and subsequent test did not violate Fawcett’s Fourth Amendment protections.
In dissent, Justice Stras asserted that the probable cause the officer had when filling out the application for warrant specified alcohol only and the judge overstepped the law when determining that Fawcett’s blood could be tested for alcohol and controlled substances. However, Stras stated that the warrant would be better defended under the good-faith exception that does not suppress evidence if law enforcement proceeds under a defective search warrant absent any evidence of wrongdoing or misconduct. He stated that the warrant was facially valid but constitutionally defective in that it failed to limit the tests to be conducted on Fawcett’s blood.