MN Appeals Court: DWI test refusal law is constitutional [infographic]

In 2013, law enforcement officers pulled over a Minnesota woman who was driving with children in her vehicle. According to MPR News, the woman took three field sobriety tests and failed two of them. She then refused to submit to a breath test, and she was arrested.

Minnesota has an implied consent law, which the woman’s attorney challenged as unconstitutional. As any Minneapolis DWI attorney would know, the law has been upheld several times. Violating it comes with serious consequences.

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The case

According to court documents, the woman’s parents had concerns that she and her husband were going to leave town with their children. A recording of the mother’s 911 call revealed that she was worried that her daughter was drinking and driving with the kids in the car. A St. Louis County deputy located and pulled over the van, noticing that the brake light on the passenger side was broken.

The deputy noted that the woman smelled like alcohol. After the sobriety tests and the breath test refusal in the second degree, the woman was arrested and charged with criminal test refusal, second degree DUI and child endangerment. A district court jury convicted her on all counts.

The appeal

Court documents show that the woman appealed the DUI conviction based on the following arguments:

  • The court should not have admitted the 911 call as evidence.
  • The DUI charge was improperly aggravated, as having three children in the car should not count as three separate factors.
  • The implied consent law is unconstitutional.
  • The district court should not have sentenced her for three charges stemming from one incident.

The court agreed that having multiple children should not count as multiple aggravating factors and returned the case to a lower court with a third degree DUI charge instead of a second degree charge. Additionally, it found that the 911 call did not have any effect on the jury’s verdict.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the appellate court upheld the constitutionality of the implied consent law. The judge cited a case earlier this year in which a breath test, which many view as a search, does not need a warrant because the alcohol could be metabolized before the warrant is obtained.

The implied consent law

Every state in the country has an implied consent law that dictates that people who apply for a driver’s license automatically agree to take field sobriety tests as well as chemical testing. As any Minneapolis DWI attorney would know, refusing to submit to a chemical test of breath, blood or urine is considered a crime. It is permissible, however, to refuse to take field sobriety tests. However, this could raise a law enforcement officer’s suspicions and will quite possibly lead to an arrest.

The implied consent law applies to any driver in Minnesota who is arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. Additionally, if a driver causes an accident that leads to serious injury, death or property damage, law enforcement officers can mandate a chemical test to determine blood alcohol content. Further, the officer will get to choose which kind of test the driver will take.

Consequences of refusing

There are both criminal and administrative penalties associated with refusing a chemical test. The law states that for first-time offenders, refusing a test will result in a gross misdemeanor, which could include up to a year in jail, a $3,000 fine and up to one-year revocation of the driver’s license.

However, someone with a prior record could face more serious charges and a longer time period for loss of driving privileges. For example, Minnesota law states that someone who has either one DWI incident over the previous 10 years or two incidents total, the revocation period will last up to two years.

Challenging implied consent

Minnesota’s implied consent law has been challenged in court several times on the grounds that it is an unconstitutional search. The Fourth Amendment protects people from unlawful searches. However, time and again, the courts have upheld that implied consent is legal because it either protects officer safety or prevents evidence from becoming destroyed.

There may be technicalities, however, that a defendant could use when charged with refusing to take a test. An officer requesting a chemical test in Minnesota must tell a driver that refusing it is a crime. Further, the officer must let drivers know that they have the right to speak to a lawyer for a reasonable amount of time, or a length of time that would not significantly delay the test. Deviating from these standards provides a defendant with a credible argument.

Defending against chemical tests

Failing a chemical test does not automatically guarantee a DWI conviction. There are several ways that the test could have produced inaccurate results. For example, if a law enforcement officer does not properly calibrate a breath test device, the machine cannot be trusted to take an accurate reading. According to the National Motorists Association, defects in the device can lead to as much as a 50 percent margin of error on the results.

Breath tests have long been criticized for their reliability. The machines can misinterpret bread, paint, blood and vomit as alcohol. Even certain medical conditions will affect a breath test. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that diabetics may fail breath tests due to the high levels of acetone they have naturally in their systems. Breath tests often mistake acetone for alcohol.

Drivers should be well aware of their rights when pulled over on suspicion of driving drunk. Knowing the laws can prevent an unnecessary loss of privileges or arrest. People charged with drunk driving should contact a Minneapolis DWI attorney as soon as possible.

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

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