Yesterday, in State v. Bernard the Minnesota Supreme Court was presented with a fundamental question that has been brewing in Minnesota: is it constitutional to criminally punish one's refusal to waive their Fourth Amendment rights against a warrantless search of their breath? (*Video available here).
Bernard’s (and our) answer to this is simple: “no.”
The State, on the other hand, gave several reasons as to why the implied consent scheme must stay intact, including its current criminalization of refusing to submit to a presumptively illegal search. These largely consisted of policy-based reasons and statistics about the number of DWI cases in Minnesota. At one point, Justice Alan Page remarked, “This isn’t about policy; this is about the Fourth Amendment.” We couldn’t agree more.
But, this did not affect the Court ‘s focus on the possibility of bypassing the warrant requirement in refusal cases, which meant exploring several exceptions that might sidestep a suspect's Fourth Amendment protections. Here’s the logic: if there is an exception allowing a warrantless search, does the defendant even have grounds to refuse?
Strangely, though, as Bernard's attorney, Mr. Sheridan pointed out, this situation might constitute charges for something like Obstruction of Justice, not refusal to test. Still, the Court pressed both sides as to whether the right to tell law enforcement “get a warrant” even applies in a DWI breath testing setting.
Of the few, well-delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement, the Court spent considerable time on whether "search incident to arrest" would preempt the refusal issue with the logic just described. The Court also probed as to whether an Administrative search where suspects are given a breath test prior to entering the jail would be an exception to the warrant requirement for, presumably, the same reason. The Court also inquired whether there is a "consent" exception from Implied Consent scheme itself (which not only has been declared a "misnomer" by the Minnesota Supreme Court itself, but also would be entirely contrary to the thrust of Brooks).
Overall, the Court was biting around the edges, looking for aspects of DWI searches that elude the real jugular of Bernard: is it legal to criminalize one’s retention of their Fourth Amendment right?
Beyond criminalization and into the realm of policy and practicality, Justice David Stras asked about the potential for increasing civil penalties as an alternative to the criminalization of refusal as a means to prevent impaired driving. Other Justices also seemed concentrated on the practicality of getting warrants in DWI cases, pointing out that judges may be woken up in the middle of the night. Justice Wilhelmina Wright (who herself is a former district court judge) added that this was “part of the job.”
While we agree with Justice Page that these policy considerations are absolutely secondary to the protections of our constitution, at some point Minnesota needs to ask itself an important question: How much legislative erosion of a suspect’s rights will we tolerate in the name of convenience?
Mr. Sheridan, in a trenchant closing, reminded all of us that when the constitution was written, a law enforcement agent would have to ride a horse for days just to get a warrant, and then ride that horse for days to get back with it in order to execute it. Given the history and precedent of the amendment, it cannot sincerely be urged that the Fourth Amendment was written for law enforcement’s convenience.
And, as Mr. Sheridan appropriately quipped, in today’s world “there will be an app for that.”
The Court's decision is expected in the coming months.
Check back in the coming weeks where we will explore other issues brought up in Bernard, such as the threshold issue of whether a suspect has a legitimate, Fourth Amendment-worthy expectation of privacy in their breath (as opposed to urine or blood).