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

The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday 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 (Oct. 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.

  • Laurie K.

    It will be interesting to see how this will affect current cases involving enhanced charges due to prior test refusal convictions. I would think that because the test refusal statute as it pertains to blood and urine was found unconstitutional that prior test refusal convictions will no longer be allowed to enhance current DWI charges.

    • That’s correct. Cops/The State can still try to make a case of exigency — needed to draw blood/urine before someone sobered up — the Mn Supreme Court today is basically sending a message not to bother too much.

      I suppose judges should get used to not getting much sleep early on Sunday morning.

      • Mike Worcester

        I won’t be surprised if the various court districts begin some sort of rotation where a judge has “weekend” duty, then gets the following Monday/Tuesday off.

  • jon

    One would think that one’s breath could also reveal more information if a machine was built to measure for those things.
    Seems like the real benefit of the breathalyzer is that it is a purpose built machine that doesn’t save any samples for further examination.

    A simple urine sampling device that only measures alcohol content with no sample saved would presumably have the same effect…

    A similar device for blood could also be created that would only measure alcohol level… similar to a glucose monitor… though it still hits an invasiveness level of breaking the skin to get blood.

    And I suppose the urine sample has the invasiveness of some one monitoring you urinate… breathing is something people do in front of each other all the time…

    • A machine that could detect additional information — I’m not sure what more information breath could reveal — would likely be useless as it would render its evidence unconstitutionally obtained.

      / A simple urine sampling device that only measures alcohol content with no sample saved would presumably have the same effect…

      It wouldn’t matter because authorities would still possess the urine and COULD use it to obtain more information.

      • jon

        Diabetes service dogs are trained to smell high or low blood sugar on their owners breathe and signal when they get too high or low. (I think they generally only train them for one or the other, I don’t recall which, but a friend of a friend says their dog signals for one, and runs and hides from her for the other).

        Sensigent is a manufacture of an electronic nose, and has a list of scientific papers about detecting various respiratory and general diseases with an electronic nose.

        There is information to be had from the miniscule trace chemicals in our breath.

        You are right though, on on the urine samples, there would need to be a way to ensure that none of the sample was stored, same for the blood… perhaps some combination of tamper proof containers, and sample destruction within the testing device itself… I’m sure a reasonable solution could be come up with… but if anyone would bother with such things just to be able to compete with big breathalyzer remains to be seen.

  • teaminfidel911

    the argument for ‘special circumstances’ being constitutional is bogus.
    change the constitution and list the ‘special circumstances’ if you want them.

    • That would result in removing the courts from interpreting the constitution and amending the constitution for every possible interpretation. I think there’s an argument to be made that the Founding Fathers did want the Constitution to be a living document or else they wouldn’t have used such terms as “reasonable”

      • BJ

        >I think there’s an argument to be made that the Founding Fathers did want the Constitution to be a living document or else they wouldn’t have used such terms as “reasonable”

        I can only up vote your comment once.

  • Fred, Just Fred

    Would be nice if they clamped down on the quasi-criminal, civil license revocation process, too. People do not realize that although a license revocation isn’t a criminal conviction, it can be, and is, used as evidence of prior offense in any subsequent criminal proceedings, even in the absence of a prior criminal DUI conviction.

    • Laurie K.

      If it was a revocation for refusal to take either a blood or urine test, the argument would be that since the statute that triggered the revocation is unconstitutional, the prior revocation should not be used for enhancement purposes.

      • Fred, Just Fred

        If that is the result of this ruling, it is a victory for honest jurisprudence, but the victory is incomplete if they can still use a civil revocation due to a breath test as evidence in a criminal proceeding. The insurance company will also use the revocation as justification to jack your rates up.

        Since it is a civil proceeding, you are not entitled to a jury; the measure of beyond reasonable doubt is replaced with a preponderance of the evidence and on top of all that, judges are watched carefully by MADD, and they know it. There is a CYA motivation to uphold every revocation.

        It really is an example of prosecutorial abuse, in my opinion.

      • The revocation of a license for refusal — i BELIEVE — is a different beast than the testing . It’s a civil matter not a criminal one based on the refusal.

        I don’t believe in the appelate courts decision impacts the DPS commissioner’s administrative powers.

        • Laurie K.

          I actually was not saying that it does. What I tried to say is that for criminal proceedings, they should not be allowed to use a prior revocation based upon a refusal to take either a blood or urine test to enhance the criminal charges.

          • Ah, I see. That would be a really interesting argument. I’d love to see someone make it in a case.

          • Fred, Just Fred

            As I understand it, they may not be able to use a refusal to submit blood or urine to revoke, but they will still be able to use a revocation based on either a refusal or a prima fascia failure of a breath test as an enhancement in a criminal proceeding.

  • bjnord

    I was hit by an impaired driver late one night, but she hadn’t been drinking, she had been abusing prescription pills. So what procedure do the police use in this case, when they have detained someone for erratic driving, and can see the person is impaired (field sobriety test?), but can only require a breath test which is negative? Would they wake up a judge and get a warrant for a urine/blood test? If they can’t get the warrant, can they still detain an obviously impaired person without a test result?

    • Yes, they get a warrant. The main reason why cops don’t get a warrant in the case of drunks is that they sober up and the evidence disappears within a couple of hours. So the clock is ticking.

      That’s not the case with drugs. They stay in your system a good long time, plenty of time to get a warrant.