MN court: Warrant not needed in drunk driving fatality

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled that authorities do not need a warrant to draw blood from a person suspected of drunk driving when a death is involved.

It’s the latest test of the issue following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that forbid warrantless searches if the search is based on concerns that alcohol in the blood will dissipate if police have to wait for a warrant.

The Minnesota court on Tuesday overturned a lower court ruling that tossed out the blood-drawn on Derek Stavish of Sartell, Minnesota, who was driving drunk in June 2012 and crashed his truck, killing an occupant.

Brent Lehnen, 19, of Albany, Minnesota, was killed when he was thrown out of the truck. Beer cans were strewn nearby and Stavish had a BAC of .20.

In his ruling today, Court of Appeals Judge James Harten said this case was different than the one on which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled because someone died.

Here, the sergeant was faced with a probable criminal vehicular homicide in one county, a probable perpetrator in need of medical treatment who had been transported to a hospital in another county, and the possibility that the perpetrator would be airlifted to a trauma center in a third county.

Because BAC must be measured within two hours of the time of driving, see Minn. Stat. § 169A.20, subd. 1(5) (2012), and because the medical treatment respondent would receive at the hospital could affect or invalidate his BAC, the sergeant was under time pressure to obtain respondent’s blood sample.

He was finally able to do so at 11:18 p.m., 50 minutes after law enforcement was first notified of the accident, and thus more than 50 minutes after the time respondent was driving.

In the Supreme Court case — known as McNeely — a man who was stopped for suspicion of drunk driving claimed being forced to give blood without a warrant violated his Fourth Amendment right.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, however, that authorities should consider the “totality” of the situation and not merely give police officers the authority to draw blood without a warrant anytime they suspect someone of driving under the influence.

Here’s the Minnesota Court of Appeals full opinion (.pdf file).