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.