Thousands of Minnesota DWI Cases Could Now Be Thrown Out!

While you may have been enjoying the last dog days of summer and missed this big ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court, you can catch up on what you need to know now. In order to understand this recent decision and its implications, we have to backtrack to a previous court case, Birchfield v. North Dakota, 579 U.S. -----, 136 S.Ct. 2160, 195 L.Ed.2d 560 (2016). In Birchfield, the United States Supreme Court consolidated three cases, each of which involved criminal test refusal laws and whether those laws violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches. Two of the cases involved the refusal of a blood test, and the other case involved the refusal of a breath test. Ultimately, the Court concluded that a breath test was a permissible search incident to a lawful arrest (i.e. no search warrant needed), but that a blood test did not fall within this exception (i.e. search warrant needed). In other words, the Court ruled that a state could make it a crime for an impaired driver to refuse a blood test ONLY if the police had a search warrant or if some valid exception to the search warrant requirement applies.

Following the decision by the Supreme Court in Birchfield, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued decisions in State v. Trahan, 886 N.W.2d 216 (Minn. 2016) and State v. Thompson, 886 N.W.2d 224 (Minn. 2016). The Trahan case involved Mr. Trahan refusing to submit to a warrantless blood test and subsequently being criminally convicted of DWI test-refusal. Applying the ruling from Birchfield, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that the test-refusal statute, as applied to Mr. Trahan, was unconstitutional, as no exigent circumstances existed to justify law enforcement not having a warrant to test his blood. Similarly, the Thompson case involved Mr. Thompson being convicted of DWI test-refusal after he refused warrantless blood and urine tests. The Minnesota Supreme Court, once again applying the ruling from Birchfield, held that the test-refusal statute was unconstitutional as applied to Mr. Thompson, and that he could not be prosecuted for refusing to submit to an unconstitutional warrantless blood or urine test. Again, no exigent circumstances existed to justify the lack of a warrant.

From these decisions, the next logical question is what about all those people who refused warrantless blood or urine tests and who were subsequently convicted of DWI test-refusal? Well, that is what the Minnesota Supreme Court recently addressed in the case of Johnson vs. State of Minnesota, --- N.W.2d --- (Minn. 2018). The Johnson case involved Mr. Johnson having been stopped in both 2009 and 2014 on suspicion of driving while impaired. On both occasions he refused to take a blood or urine test and pled guilty to refusing to take a chemical test. In 2016, Mr. Johnson filed a petition for post-conviction relief arguing that because law enforcement did not have warrants for his blood or urine in 2009 or in 2014 that his convictions for test-refusal were unconstitutional and must be vacated. The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed. The Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that the Birchfield holding essentially placed a category of conduct (i.e. refusing warrantless blood or urine tests) outside the State’s power to prosecute and therefore is a substantive rule that must be applied retroactively.

So, if you are one of the thousands in Minnesota that has pled guilty to test-refusal you should immediately contact an attorney. The attorney can assist you with filing a post- conviction petition. The reversal of your conviction is not automatic. Rather, the court will have to determine if the test-refusal statute was unconstitutional as applied in your case (i.e. no search warrant and no exigent circumstances otherwise justifying the lack of a warrant). If so, then your conviction will indeed be reversed and vacated.

Jade Rosenfeldt is a criminal defense attorney at Vogel Law Firm, and can be reached at (218) 236-6462 if you, a friend, or a loved one, has questions regarding a criminal issue in North Dakota or Minnesota, including DWI.

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