MN Supreme Court kills warrantless blood/urine tests of drunk drivers

The Minnesota Supreme Court today essentially enacted what the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year, telling authorities if they want to get drunk drivers off the road by testing their urine or blood, they need to get a warrant.

At issue is the Minnesota law that makes it a crime for DUI suspects to refuse invasive searches without a warrant. A portion of the law — one requiring drivers to submit to blood and urine testing — was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Breath tests without a warrant, however, were ruled constitutional.

Two cases in which men were convicted under the test-refusal law were both argued before the U.S. court made its ruling.

In the first of two opinions on the subject today, the Minnesota court rejected state prosecutors’ attempts to uphold the original five-year sentence given to Todd Trahan, who claimed being forced to provide samples without a warrant after he was stopped in 2012 by a Ramsey County sheriff’s deputy is an unconstitutional search.

Nearly a year ago to the day (October 13), the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the conviction.

State authorities tried to make the conviction stick by arguing special circumstances existed to allow the unconstitutional search, but chief justice Lorie Gildea was unpersuaded, citing June’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, allowing warrantless breath tests, but not urine and blood tests.

The state fared no better in trying to reinstate the test-refusal conviction of Ryan Thompson, who was stopped by police in Owatonna in 2012, flunked field sobriety tests, but refused to allow authorities to seize urine and blood samples without a warrant. He was eventually convicted only of refusing to submit to the tests.

His case is a little different because Thompson refused urine tests and the U.S. Supreme Court did not rule on such tests when it struck down the searches in June.

Is a urine test as invasive as a blood draw?

In terms of invasiveness, “a urine test is more similar to a breath test than a blood test,” Gildea wrote in today’s opinion, a significant point because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a breath test without a warrant in Minnesota is not unconstitutional.

But she said the fact urine can provide more information than simply the level of alcohol in the body makes the urine test more like the blood tests that were struck down precisely for that reason.

Regardless of whether urine samples contain more information than blood samples, the logic in the Court’s analysis of blood tests applies with equal force to urine tests. A breath test, as the Court noted, is capable of revealing only one thing in the hands of law enforcement: an individual’s blood-alcohol concentration.

Urine tests, on the other hand, can be used to detect and assess a wide range of disorders and can reveal whether an individual is pregnant, diabetic, or epileptic. But that is not true with respect to a urine test. Even
when law enforcement is prohibited from using the collected urine samples for purposes other than alcohol concentration testing, “the potential [for abuse] remains and [the test] may result in anxiety for the person tested.”

State prosecutors contend that the so-called implied consent law, requiring testing even without a warrant, is needed to combat drunk driving.

Gildea was not unsympathetic to the argument. But she said authorities can always get a warrant and since breath tests without a warrant are constitutional, they remain an option, too.

“Despite the State’s ‘great’ need for alcohol concentration testing, the availability of a less-invasive breath test weighs against the reasonableness of requiring the more revealing and embarrassing urine test absent a warrant or exigent circumstances,” she wrote.

“Forcing Minnesotans to undergo an intrusive blood or urine search without a warrant, violates fundamental privacy rights. We are glad the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the protections granted under the Fourth Amendment. Going forward Minnesotans,” Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said in a statement following today’s rulings.