MN Court of Appeals: Cop’s spotlight isn’t a ‘seizure’

It is after midnight. You’re in the parking lot of a Woodbury strip mall when a police officer blocks your car and shines his spotlight on you, walks to your door and asks you to take a breathalyzer test.

You refuse and because the law in Minnesota makes it a crime to refuse a breathalyzer test (known as “implied consent”), you lose your license.

Is this legal?

Today, the Minnesota Court of Appeals declared it is.

It said so in the case of Rita Illi who was questioned by a Woodbury police officer in November 2013.

She argued that the the police officer had “seized” her without having probable cause to do so. Because of that, her refusal to submit to testing is inadmissible in court. The district court disagreed and the Court of Appeals today said Illi wasn’t “seized.”

It is true that an officer must have reasonable suspicion to seize a person. An officer’s actions constitute a seizure when they indicate to a reasonable person that she is not free to leave.

Generally, no seizure occurs when an officer merely walks up to and speaks with a driver sitting in an already-stopped vehicle. Nor does a seizure occur simply because a person feels some “moral or instinctive pressure to cooperate” with the officer.

Because Illi had already stopped her Jeep without any police involvement before the officer walked up to her, and because the officer’s approach was not itself a seizure, we must consider whether the officer’s pre-approach conduct constituted a seizure.

The court said the officer’s car wasn’t boxing her in, so she was free to leave.

When the officer approached her car, he smell alcohol. Illi wouldn’t cooperate with breath tests, so the officer took a sample of the air around her mouth and it registered .14, well over the .08 legal limit. A subsequent search of her car found a bottle of vodka.

Illi argues that she was seized because the officer was “boxing her in” with his squad car. The argument fails on the facts.

It is true that an officer’s blocking of a vehicle may constitute a seizure because that sort of conduct might indicate to a reasonable person that she is not free to leave. But blocking in a car so as to execute a seizure occurs only when the officer actually positions his squad car so as to prevent the other vehicle from leaving.

And the district court found that Officer Kroshus was not stopped so as to prevent Illi from pulling away from behind the truck. We rely on that finding because it is supported by the evidence. Both a video recording and the officer’s testimony confirm it. Because the officer did not block in Illi’s vehicle, the squad car’s positioning did not constitute a seizure.

The question is important because had the court ruled that Illi had been seized as soon as her car was blocked and the spotlight turned on her, she could have challenged whether there was probable cause to “seize” her.

Once the officer smelled alcohol, and once she refused the breath test, however, her driver’s license suspension for doing so couldn’t be challenged.

Illi originally had questioned the constitutionality of the implied consent rule, but dropped it at oral arguments. Minnesota courts have upheld the no-refusal-allowed law despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down some warrantless “searches” of drivers suspected of drunk driving.

Earlier this month, however, the U.S. Supreme Court said it will review Minnesota’s law during this term, specifically the case of a South St. Paul man who was charged with a felony for refusing to take a blood-alcohol test at a boat ramp.

In February, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the law. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote that 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.”

Eleven states have no-refusal laws similar to Minnesota’s.