Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom indicated he is very pleased with today’s decision of the United States Supreme Court in the Bernard v. Minnesota case in which the Court held that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving. The Court also upheld the validity of Minnesota’s criminal refusal statute as applied in those cases in which a person, lawfully arrested for drunk driving, refuses to submit to a breath test. Minnesota and several other states have enacted laws allowing criminal charges to be filed against an individual arrested under suspicion of drunk driving who refuses to take a breath test after being requested to do so by a law enforcement officer.
Backstrom indicated that in two North Dakota cases, which were also part of this decision by the United States Supreme Court, the Court concluded that a search warrant is necessary before an individual arrested under suspicion of drunk driving has blood drawn for testing. The Court reasoned that breath tests, unlike blood tests, do not implicate significant privacy concerns and that breath tests can be conducted without a warrant as a search incident to a valid arrest.
Backstrom said that this decision will directly impact the vast majority of arrests of individuals suspected of impaired driving by allowing such individuals to be immediately transported to the nearest location (typically the police station) where equipment to take an admissible breath test is located (PBT tests done at the site of an arrest are used to determine probable cause for the arrest but are not admissible in court). After being read an implied consent advisory, and without the need to obtain a search warrant from a judge, the suspect’s breath will be tested if they consent to have this done. If the suspect refuses to be tested or fails to fully cooperate in such testing, he/she will be charged with a crime for test refusal. In cases where the suspect is unconscious or where impairment due to a controlled substance is suspected, law enforcement officers will be required to obtain a search warrant from a judge authorizing a blood draw from the suspect before any criminal charges will be possible.
Backstrom commented: “This is a well-reasoned and appropriate approach to addressing one of our nation’s greatest dangers to public safety. Each year, drunk driving claims a terrible toll on our roadways, killing close to 10,000 and crippling hundreds of thousands more.”
Backstrom indicated that the Dakota County case involving Robert Bernard, Jr. which occurred on August 5, 2012 in South St. Paul will now proceed to trial. A Dakota County judge had previously dismissed these charges after he found our State’s implied consent law unconstitutional, finding that a search warrant was required before law enforcement officers could take a breath test from someone arrested under suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. While the Minnesota Court of Appeals and Minnesota Supreme Court had previously reversed this decision, this case has been on hold pending this appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
Backstrom praised the work of Assistant County Attorney Kathy Keena, who argued this case before the United States Supreme Court on April 20, 2016.
If you have any questions, contact James Backstrom at 651-438-4440.