Minnesota Supreme Court rules in favor of criminal refusal law

Dissenting judges say ruling flouts U.S. Supreme Court and constitutional rights

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that the controversial criminal refusal law is constitutional, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The implied-consent law allows officers to request a blood or breath sample from suspected drunk drivers without first obtaining a warrant to do so. The refusal law makes it a crime to say no to that request. The ruling, however, does not end the debate over the law's constitutionality and may have simply set the stage for a further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Critics, including two justices on the state's highest court, say the ruling may be a violation of previous rulings made by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Law constitutional

The implied-consent law makes it legal for officers to request a blood or breath test for alcohol if they believe there is sufficient evidence for a search warrant. However, obtaining the warrant itself is not required. Under the law, simply accepting a license means drivers impliedly consented to give their consent to a blood-alcohol content test if lawfully asked to do so. Across the country, the accepted penalty for withdrawing this "implied consent" at the time a test request is made results in a revocation of the license. But Minnesota has taken it a step further and has criminalized withholding consent to the test.

The law is highly controversial. A lower court, citing -U.S. Supreme Court rulings, declared that a person could not be prosecuted for insisting that officers fulfill their obligations under the Fourth Amendment and actually obtain a search warrant. That judge dismissed the criminal refusal charge. An appeals court overturned the lower court's ruling, however, and ruled that the officer in the case did not need to try to get a search warrant in order to take a breath sample. The Minnesota Supreme Court's ruling affirmed the appeal court's decision, thus upholding the constitutionality of the warrantless search. The court concluded that because a person arrested for DWI is always in custody, he or she can always be searched "incident to arrest," a well-recognized exception to the warrant requirement. The dissenting justices sharply disagreed and pointed out that although a "search incident to arrest" is always permitted for evidence that may be found "on" a person (after all, they are about to be introduced into a jail population), the Supreme Court has never extended that exception to evidence found "in" a person.

U.S. Supreme Court showdown?

According to Minnesota Public Radio, the court's ruling may simply have paved the way for a showdown with the U.S. Supreme Court. Two dissenting justices on the state's top court strongly disagreed with the ruling, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled that warrantless searches in DUI cases are unconstitutional in most cases. As such, it may be left to the country's high court to finally settle the matter.

Critics of the criminal refusal law were quick to raise concerns about the state court's ruling. They contend that allowing for warrantless searches in DUI cases could have a "chilling effect" on Fourth Amendment rights in other cases. For example, they say the court's endorsement of criminalizing the withholding of consent to a warrantless search could lead to a dangerous precedent whereby police feel they are able to be more aggressive in other types of cases, such as those involving drugs or theft.

DUI defense

While the question of the constitutionality of Minnesota's harsh DUI laws has yet to be settled, the case should serve as a reminder of how seriously DUI charges are treated in the state. Anybody who is facing a charge of DUI or criminal test refusal needs to contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can help a defendant understand how best to respond to such charges so that his or her freedom and reputation are better protected.