MN Supreme Court: Warrantless search OK in DUI cases

The Minnesota Supreme Court, in a series of decisions in recent years, has been on a likely collision course with the U.S. Supreme Court over your rights when stopped for driving under the influence, and a decision from the state court today may hasten that showdown.

The issue is the state’s implied consent law, which requires you to either submit to testing when stopped for a DUI or face criminal charges that might be more severe. Under Minnesota law, you grant that consent when you accept a driver’s license.

The court ruled in the case of William Bernard, who was stopped by police in South St. Paul after they received a tip that three drunk men had jumped in a pickup truck at the public boat launch on the Mississippi River. By the time they got there, Bernard was walking dazed in his underwear, his pickup truck hung up on the edge of the boat ramp. All smelled of alcohol.

Bernard admitted to drinking, but said he wasn’t driving the truck, and he refused to take a chemical test, which allowed police to charge him with DUI under the so-called “implied consent law,” giving police the right to search without a warrant because alcohol could dissipate by the time a search warrant was obtained.

While the district court tossed out the implied consent charges as unconstitutional, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overruled the court, and today the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed that the case does not violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

“There is no question that the Court has required either a concern for officer safety or a concern over the preservation of evidence to support the constitutionality of a warrantless search of the area where the defendant was arrested or a search of items near the defendant,” Chief justice Lori Gildea wrote in today’s opinion (pdf). “But the Court has not applied these concerns as a limitation on the warrantless search of the body of a person validly arrested.”

“The breath test was a search of Bernard’s person that would have been no more intrusive than the myriad of other searches of the body that we and other courts have upheld as searches incident to a valid arrest,” she wrote.

Gildea said encouraging drivers to submit to such tests, through criminalizing their refusal, furthers the state’s interest in getting impaired drivers off the road. She says criminalizing a refusal to submit to testing is “rational.”

That drew a rebuke from both a conservative and liberal member of the court.

Justice Alan Page and Justice David Stras wrote in their dissent that Gildea and the court’s majority wish to live in a world without the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the warrantless searches.

“The truth of the matter is that its decision is borne of obstinance, not law,” they wrote. “In the end, the court ultimately arrives at a decision that is as notable for its disregard of Supreme Court precedent as it is for its defective logic.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that police must generally get a warrant in order to test drivers for drugs or liquor.

  • MikeB

    I never agreed with the fact that getting a drivers license equates to giving up your rights to the 4th amendment. If you buy a house does that mean you consent to warrantless searches as well? Society has an interest in making sure nothing illegal goes on in your home as well. A lot of crime happens in peoples’ homes.

    Here’s hoping SCOTUS shoots this down

    • You actually did. They just didn’t tell you you did.

      (a) Any person who drives, operates, or is in physical control of a motor vehicle within this state or on any boundary water of this state consents, subject to the provisions of sections 169A.50 to 169A.53 (implied consent law), and section 169A.20 (driving while impaired), to a chemical test of that person’s blood, breath, or urine for the purpose of determining the presence of alcohol, a controlled substance or its metabolite, or a hazardous substance. The test must be administered at the direction of a peace officer.

      • MikeB

        Well technically, yes. But hopefully it will be overturned on legal principle. Our rights should not be washed away by any fine print

  • John

    Many types of license, while granting the holder certain rights, also commonly includes responsibilities. Driving a car is not a right, it is a privilege granted by the state following completion of certain requirements such as age, passing written and behind the wheel tests, etc.

    With the rights granted by the license one can reasonably be expected to have the responsibility to submit to a test to determine whether one is impaired by drug or alcohol. I believe this is a fair and reasonable expectation and I’m all for it. I am also in favor of lowering the BAC to .03%, which is the level at which most people actually test as impaired on reaction time and cognitive function / decision making tests.

    • Yes, but the issue isn’t whether police have the right to search. It’s whether they have the right to search without a warrant.

    • Randy

      Seriously .03? What’s your justification? Please cite medical studies that concur. Also, why not make looking to the side while driving, thinking, or doing anything else illegal while driving? Not everyone is intoxicated at .03 or .08 for that matter. Also, the issue at hand in this case is the ability to search without a warrant.

    • Jack

      “With the rights granted by the license one can reasonably be expected to have the responsibility to submit to a test to determine whether one is impaired by drug or alcohol.”
      Wouldn’t it be a paradise if we all took responsibility for our actions?

  • Alan_Muller

    This decision makes me uncomfortable. What a “search” seems to mean in this case is a forcible alcohol test. Just what do they do? Hold the guy down and stick in a needle? Or shove an air tube down his throat? I’d like to see this discussed in terms of what actually happens…….