One of the many constitutional protections we enjoy in this country is due process of the law. Media reports often talk freely about procedures and the policies of government agencies as if a policy itself will satisfy due process rights. A recent decision in the Minnesota Court of Appeals highlights that what constitutes due process is more complex.
In March 2010, a man was arrested on suspicion of driving while impaired in Plymouth. Authorities obtained a blood sample from the accused under Minnesota’s implied consent law. That sample was sent off to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for toxicology analysis, as is the norm in Minnesota.
The state alleged that the sample showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.11 percent. The man was formally charged with a series of offenses, including a Minnesota DWI charge based upon the blood test result.
In June 2010, the man, through his DWI defense lawyer, requested that the state preserve all the evidence in the case, specifically requested that the blood sample be saved. A defendant has the right to challenge the state’s evidence in court, and if the blood sample is simply thrown away after the state tests it, a person accused of DWI has little recourse to independently test the sample to ensure that the lab analysis conducted by the state was not flawed.
Do scientific mistakes happen? Are toxicologists or computers infallible? The Minnesota Supreme Court still has under consideration challenges brought concerning the reliability of the Intoxilyzer machine in Minnesota DWI cases. In the nation’s capitol city, the attorney general admitted that breath testing machines provided faulty results that were used to prosecute at least 300 drivers.
More importantly in regard to blood samples, a crime lab in Colorado used unreliable blood tests to falsely accuse more than 80 motorists with drunk driving. On the West Coast, the state proceeded against a defendant charged with DUI on allegations that the driver had a 0.15 percent BAC on the day of the alleged offense. The defense retested the sample, and the retest returned a 0.13 percent reading.
That difference under the state law would have reduced the charge, but the defense also tested the sample for DNA, which proved that the crime lab had mixed up the blood samples. The blood sample was not even taken from the person accused of DUI.
Back at home in Minnesota, the BCA has a policy to throw away blood samples in DWI cases after one year. As the Plymouth, Minnesota, DWI trial neared, the defense requested the blood sample to test the reliability of the state’s analysis. The BCA said that the sample was gone, under BCA policy.
The defense asked the trial court to throw the crime lab analysis out, and the Hennepin County judge agreed. Prosecutors appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals, arguing that the defendant had to show that the state acted in bad faith when it destroyed the evidence, among other things. The state also essentially argued that the defendant did not prove that the destroyed sample would have exonerated him.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed, saying:
“But the right to determine whether evidence is “favorable to an accused” does not belong to the state: the state may not determine what evidence is definitely, probably, or possibly not favorable and then destroy it after the accused has specifically and in writing requested that it be preserved without violating due process.”
The appellate panel agreed with the trial court judge that the state could not rely on evidence it had destroyed after the defense specifically requested that the evidence be preserved until trial.
The Newspaper, “Minnesota: Court Rules Police Cannot Destroy DUI Blood Sample,” Mar. 29, 2012
Minnesota Court of Appeals, “State v. Hawkinson, A11-1565, A11-1819,” Mar.26, 2012