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Big Developments in Minnesota’s DWI Laws

6th March 2017

Some big developments in Minnesota’s DWI laws this week.  On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued opinions in State v. Trahan and State v. Thompson.  Both cases were previously on hold while the Supreme Court of the United States heard and decided Birchfield v. North Dakota.

Both Trahan and Thompson involved motorists arrested for DWI who then later refused to submit to blood and urine testing at the police station (blood in Trahan and urine in Thompson).  For many years, the law in Minnesota allowed for the prosecution of any person arrested for DWI who refused to provide a sample of their blood, urine, or breath for alcohol testing.  After Wednesday, the State can no longer prosecute the crime of test refusal in cases of blood and urine unless law enforcement had a search warrant for the specimen or unless “exigent” circumstances existed.  Exigent circumstances normally are present when the unique facts of a given case make the securing of a search warrant too difficult in the time period when the evidence is sought by the officer.  As an example, if an officer is required to respond to and investigate a crash, he or she may not also be able to prepare a search warrant in the time in which alcohol concentration evidence may dissipate from a driver’s body.

Going forward, we anticipate law enforcement agencies increasingly relying on breath-testing, as that form of testing does not require an officer to secure a search warrant.  Unlike blood and urine testing, breath-testing is considered a “search-incident-to-arrest” – a type of search that is permitted upon the arrest of an individual where no search warrant is necessary.  As of now, a person cannot lawfully refuse a request for a breath-test under Minnesota’s DWI laws.

The DWI laws in Minnesota have undergone seismic changes in the past few years.  More changes can be expected as these precedent-setting cases are tested in the district courts.  We also expect the Minnesota Legislature to have its say on several aspects of the law now rendered useless.  Stay tuned for more.