A Bad Opinion from the Minnesota Supreme Court for those under Arrest for DUI/Drunk Driving

The name of the case is Minnesota vs. Fawcett, and it was issued on August 24, 2016, from the Minnesota Supreme Court.  The basic facts, arguments and holding appear below:

Fawcett drove her car through a red light, causing a collision with another car. A police detective applied for and was issued a warrant to search a sample of Fawcett’s blood for “evidence of criminal vehicular operation.” The issuing judge found that probable cause existed for the issuance of the search. After Fawcett’s blood was drawn, a toxicology report indicated that Fawcett’s blood contained a metabolite of THC and Alprazolam at the time of the accident. The State charged Fawcett with criminal vehicular operation. Fawcett filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the warrant did not provide probable cause for the police to test her blood for controlled substances. The district court granted Fawcett’s motion, concluding that the blood sample was lawfully obtained under the warrant but that the subsequent testing of the blood sample for the presence of drugs was unlawful. The court of appeals reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) the facts alleged in the warrant application and supporting affidavit supported testing Fawcett’s blood for controlled substances; and (2) the search warrant satisfied the particularity requirement in the Fourth Amendment.

The facts alleged and put forward in the affidavit to procure the search warrant were as follows:  “evidence of the crime of criminal vehicular operation/homicide.” The warrant application and supporting affidavit alleged the following facts. At approximately 5:08 p.m. on May 24, 2014, officers from the Blaine Police Department responded to a motor vehicle crash at Highway 65 and 109th Avenue in the City of Blaine, Anoka County. One or more persons suffered bodily harm as a result of the crash, including “significant foot and ankle injuries and inability to move their leg[s].” “The victim and several witnesses placed Fawcett behind the wheel of a vehicle that ran a red light. Fawcett admitted to the officers that she was driving and had been drinking prior to the crash.” “From their investigation, officers formed the belief that at the time of the collision . . . Fawcett was the driver and was under the influence of alcohol.” “Fawcett admitted to responding officers that she had two or three drinks just prior to the crash, she smelled of an alcoholic beverage and it was apparent to officers on-scene that she had been drinking.”

It is mysterious how this court could find that the facts alleged in the affidavit provided probable cause to conclude that evidence of a criminal vehicular operation would be found in Fawcett’s blood.  It is equally mysterious as to how the court could find that the search warrant in this case satisfied the “particularity” requirement in the Fourth Amendment.

The dissenting opinion of Justice Stras makes a whole lot more sense to me.  His full dissent is recited below:

This case requires us to determine when, and under what circumstances, police officers have probable cause to perform a chemical test for the presence of controlled substances when they have reason to suspect a driver is under the influence of alcohol. Because the warrant application established probable cause only for the presence of alcohol in Debra Fawcett’s blood, not the presence of a controlled substance, I respectfully dissent from the court’s conclusion that the search conducted in this case was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

By proceeding through a red light, Fawcett drove her vehicle into the path of L.S.’s vehicle. The two vehicles collided, which caused both drivers to sustain injuries. When police officers arrived on the scene and began questioning the participants and witnesses, one of the officers detected alcohol on Fawcett’s breath. Fawcett admitted that she had consumed “two to three beers” earlier that day. While Fawcett was in the ambulance receiving treatment for her injuries, an officer recited the implied-consent advisory and asked her to take a test to determine if she was “under the influence of alcohol.” He also informed her that he had probable cause to believe that she had “violated the criminal vehicular homicide or injury laws,” which meant that a chemical test would be taken “with or without [her] consent.” No chemical test was administered at that time.

After Fawcett was transported to the hospital, another officer completed an application for a search warrant accompanied by an affidavit. Nothing in the affidavit suggested that Fawcett was under the influence of anything other than alcohol. In fact, the affidavit specifically stated that “officers [had] formed the belief that . . . Fawcett was . . . under the influence of alcohol” because “Fawcett admitted to responding officers that she had two or three drinks just prior to the crash, she smelled of an alcoholic beverage[,] and it was apparent to officers on-scene that she had been drinking.” The judge issued a warrant that allowed a “blood sample to be taken from [Fawcett] at Mercy Hospital” and forwarded “to an approved lab for testing.” The warrant was silent on the specific types of tests that law enforcement could conduct on the blood sample.

One month later, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (“BCA”) reported that there was no ethyl alcohol in Fawcett’s blood sample, but that “additional toxicology report(s) [would] follow.” A second BCA report indicated that Fawcett’s blood sample contained Alprazolam, a prescription medication, and a metabolite of tetrahydrocannabinol (“THC”), an active ingredient of marijuana. An officer then obtained a search warrant for any records with the name “Debra Lee Fawcett” in Minnesota’s Prescription Monitoring Program. The search revealed that Fawcett had a valid prescription for Alprazolam at the time of the accident.

The State subsequently filed a criminal complaint against Fawcett alleging that she had committed criminal vehicular operation. Minn. Stat. § 609.21, subd. 1(2)(ii) (2012) (making it a crime to cause injury to another while operating a motor vehicle in a negligent manner while under the influence of a controlled substance). The State’s theory of the case was that Fawcett’s combined use of THC and Alprazolam, both controlled substances, violated the criminal-vehicular-operation statute.

After the State filed the complaint, Fawcett filed a motion to suppress “[a]ll evidence of the presence of drugs.” The district court granted Fawcett’s motion, concluding as relevant here that, under the Fourth Amendment, there was no probable cause to search Fawcett’s blood for the presence of controlled substances. The court of appeals reversed, holding that Fawcett did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of her blood sample after it was seized by law enforcement for testing under a search warrant. State v. Fawcett, 877 N.W.2d 555, 561-62 (Minn. App. 2016).

I agree with the court that a search warrant that authorizes law enforcement to seize and test a person’s blood for intoxicants does not wipe out a person’s reasonable expectation that law enforcement will not test the blood sample for other purposes. The permissible extent of the invasion is tied to the scope of the warrant. See Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 140 (1990) (“If the scope of the search exceeds that permitted by the terms of a validly issued warrant . . . , the subsequent seizure is unconstitutional without more.”).6

But I disagree with the court’s conclusion that probable cause to search for alcohol in a driver’s blood necessarily provides the police with probable cause to search for drugs. It is not clear how the court reaches this conclusion, other than the inferences it draws from the affidavit that lead it to conclude that the issuing judge must have found that there was probable cause to search for “intoxicants, whether alcohol, controlled substances, or a combination of alcohol and controlled substances.”

The most serious problem with the court’s conclusion is that the affidavit is devoid of specific facts that could have led the issuing judge to conclude that probable cause existed to test Fawcett’s blood for the presence of controlled substances. Nothing about Fawcett’s demeanor, actions, or words suggested that the accident occurred because she was under the influence of a controlled substance. The affidavit did not describe any abnormal physical characteristics, comment on Fawcett’s ability to converse with the officers, or note any other behavior that would have given reason to believe that Fawcett was under the influence of another substance in addition to alcohol. To the contrary, two of the facts explicitly relied upon by this court—the smell of alcohol on Fawcett’s breath and the admission that she had been drinking prior to the accident—point exclusively to alcohol as the cause of the accident. In fact, the affidavit specifically states that the” officers formed the belief” that Fawcett was “under the influence of alcohol” at the time of the collision.7 The court asserts that the two remaining facts—the injuries suffered by L.S. and the observation that Fawcett ran a red light—support its conclusion that probable cause to search for controlled substances existed, but the court seems to assume the connection rather than explain it.8

The court also seems to suggest that the affidavit was sufficient because it stated that law enforcement sought “evidence of the crime of criminal vehicular operation/homicide,” which can be committed when an individual is driving under the influence of alcohol, controlled substances, or both. See Minn. Stat. § 609.21, subd. 1(2) (2012). The fact that the affidavit generically references the suspected crime is of little assistance, however, because it reflects only the legal conclusion of the officers and is therefore, at best, “vague and conclusory.” See State v. Souto, 578 N.W.2d 744, 749 (Minn. 1998) (holding that the statement in an affidavit that the suspect was involved “in the possession and/or distribution of drugs on a wide scale” was too conclusory to provide support for a search warrant). As the Supreme Court has made clear, “[s]ufficient information must be presented to the magistrate to allow that official to determine probable cause; his action cannot be a mere ratification of the bare conclusions of others.” Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S 213, 239 (1983).

On this record, therefore, I would conclude that the search-warrant application and accompanying affidavit failed to establish probable cause for the search of Fawcett’s blood for controlled substances. I therefore respectfully dissent from Part I of the court’s opinion.

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