Pursuant to Minnesota law, it is a crime for anyone to refuse to submit to a chemical breath test to determine intoxication. For blood and urine tests, it is a crime to refuse to submit to said tests if a search warrant was obtained. However, prior to 2015, a warrant wasn’t necessary for said invasive tests. Thus, questions arise as to whether a conviction for refusing a blood or urine chemical test for intoxication prior to the new law can be overturned.
In some cases, it may be possible to vacate a test-refusal conviction. The Minnesota Supreme Court case of Johnson v. State examines this issue.
Johnson v. State
In 2010 and 2015, Mark Johnson pleaded guilty and was convicted of first-degree refusal to submit to a warrantless blood or urine alcohol concentration (BAC) test after being arrested on suspicion of driving while impaired. In 2016, Johnson filed two petitions for postconviction relief—one for each of his previous test-refusal convictions.
In his argument, Johnson drew on the US Supreme Court case Birchfield v. North Dakota and the Minnesota Supreme Court cases of State v. Thompson, and State v. Trahan in which the courts created substantive rules with retroactive effect. Thus, Johnson argued that both of his test-refusal convictions should be vacated.
After the district court denied both petitions, Johnson appealed. The appellate court consolidated both cases and upheld the district court ruling. Johnson took his case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. There were two issues: that his convictions should be reversed in light of the new rules from the aforementioned cases, and whether Johnson’s guilty plea forfeited his right to challenge the convictions.
Prior to Thompson and Trahan, motorists who were suspected of driving while intoxicated could be charged if they refused any chemical test: breath, urine, or blood. In 2015, however, the Minnesota legislature passed a law that required law enforcement obtain a search warrant for a blood and urine test because of the intrusiveness of said tests and potential privacy implications protected by the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. The Missouri case of State v. McNeely guided this legislation.
Today, Minnesota motorists have the right to refuse a blood or urine test. However, a breath test is non-invasive and thus has a lower expectation of privacy, so people cannot lawfully refuse. All individuals with driver’s licenses who operate a motor vehicle have provided implied consent to provide a breath test to determine BAC if they are suspected of driving while under the influence.
Minnesota Supreme Court ruling
The court held that, guided by Birchfield, in both Thompson and Trahan, the test-refusal statute was applied unconstitutionally because a blood (and urine) test is not a lawful search incident to arrest that provides an exception to the warrant rule. Thus, for a blood or urine chemical test, law enforcement must obtain a warrant unless there are exigent circumstances or another legitimate exception to the warrant rule. Further, obtaining a warrant these days is rather easy given the advent of electronic warrants.
The bottom line
Some argue that it is impossible to retry all cases in which a person was convicted for refusing a blood or urine chemical test, and it is impossible that every challenge will result in a conviction being overturned. There may be situations in which there is other evidence to uphold the conviction or that fall under the legitimate warrant exception rule. Thus, every case will have to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
Another potential effect of Johnson is the increased potential of whether other new rules could be applied retroactively if particular conduct for which a person was convicted is later legalized.