U.S. Supreme Court Decision Pares Back Minnesota’s Test Refusal Law

When police officers pull drivers over on suspicion of drunken driving, they determine the motorist’s blood alcohol content with a test. That test can be conducted by analyzing the driver’s breath, blood, or urine. For years, drivers could not refuse these tests and police did not need a warrant in order to seek them. But a recent court ruling will change how police apply Minnesota’s test refusal law.

Minnesota law had not permitted drivers to refuse tests for the presence of drugs or alcohol because of a legal concept called implied consent. In Minnesota, as well as some other states, signing the paperwork for a license and driving on the road means the driver agrees to submit to tests for drugs or alcohol if a police officer asks for such a test. But one alleged drunk driver, William Bernard, challenged that requirement when he was pulled over by police in South Saint Paul. Bernard admitted to police officers that had been drinking but he told them he was not driving, according to a Minnesota Public Radio report. Bernard refused all police tests to determine his blood alcohol content. His lawyers said that police could not ask for such tests without a warrant. He was charged with two felony counts of refusing to submit to a chemical test, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.

A Dakota County District Court judge dismissed the charges against Bernard, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that limited the power of law enforcement to take a blood sample without a warrant. That decision did not rule Minnesota’s implied consent law unconstitutional, but the judge in that case did say that police should have obtained a warrant before they brought charges against Bernard, the Star Tribune explained. The state Court of Appeals overturned that decision, saying that police officers had probable cause to arrest Bernard. Bernard appealed to the state Supreme Court, where justices ruled last year that the warrantless breathalyzer test administered to the Eagan man was legal under an exception to the law that allows police to search a suspect to prevent destruction of evidence, the Star Tribune reported.

The Bernard case did not end with Minnesota’s high court. He appealed yet again, and Minnesota v. Bernard, as well as two other similar cases, was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The cases challenged implied consent laws as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on unreasonable search and seizures, according to an Associated Press report. In a 6 to 2 decision issued in June, the high court said that police must obtain a search warrant that before requiring a driver to take a blood alcohol test. But the ruling was not a blanket decision affecting all tests. The ruling does not require a warrant for breath tests, which the high court deemed less intrusive. In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that breath tests do not raise the same privacy concerns as blood tests because a breathalyzer does not break the skin or leave the government with a person’s biological sample.

In Minnesota, drivers who refuse to submit to breath tests face stiffer penalties more severe than a DWI conviction, particularly in cases where the individual has previous DWI convictions, MPR noted. Justices had no problems maintaining penalties for refusing a breathalyzer test. If the penalty for driving drunk or for repeat drunken driving violations is greater than the penalty for refusing to submit to testing, then drivers who fear conviction have an incentive for refusing these tests, Alito wrote. That means that in Bernard’s case, he would have been justified in refusing a blood test until police obtained a warrant. But he would have no grounds to refuse a breathalyzer.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Bernard case will have an impact on how police pursue alcohol testing going forward. If you have been tested by police, you may have some questions about whether the tests were done according to the latest court ruling. Please contact us to learn more about how the law applies to your situation.