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The Minnesota Supreme Court Paves the Way for Dismissal of Test-Refusal Convictions

In recent years, Minnesota's blood, breath, and urine testing regimen in DWI cases came under fire due to concerns about whether law enforcement officers should obtain a search warrant before obtaining a chemical test. The concern for many was that blood, breath, and urine testing involves a significant intrusion into a person's right to privacy and therefore a warrant should be obtained before a test request. The discomfort of urinating into a cup while someone watches over your shoulder or having a needle stuck into your arm cannot be understated. The issue was particularly problematic in states such as Minnesota, which criminally punishes individuals who refuse to submit to chemical testing in DWI cases.

These concerns were addressed in a trio of court cases in 2016, which we blogged about previously. In Birchfield v. North Dakota, the United States Supreme Court concluded that law enforcement does not need a warrant to obtain a breath test. Accordingly, Minnesota can make it a crime for an individual to refuse to submit to a breath test. However, the United States Supreme Court concluded that Minnesota cannot criminalize test refusal involving a blood test unless law enforcement has a search warrant or a valid exception to the search warrant requirement. For the United States Supreme Court, the reason for the difference in treatment between blood and breath testing was the level of intrusion--the Supreme Court concluded that a blood draw was a serious invasion to an individual's right to privacy whereas a breath test involved a lesser degree of intrusion.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals subsequently decided State v. Thompson and State v. Trahan, which were test refusal cases involving a request for a urine test and a blood test, respectively. The Minnesota Court of Appeals confirmed the United States Supreme Court's decision in Birchfield and concluded that, in the run-of-the-mill DWI case, law enforcement needs a search warrant or a valid warrant exception before criminally charging an individual who refuses a request for a blood or urine test. The decisions in Thompson and Trahan were "as applied" challenges, meaning the courts were not considering whether the rules of law pronounced in those case should be applied retroactively.

However, the Minnesota Supreme Court recently took up the issue of retroactivity in State v. Johnson. In that case, Johnson was arrested in 2010 for DWI and asked whether he would submit a blood or urine test. Johnson refused to do so and was charged with test refusal. He later pleaded guilty to this offense. Following Birchfield, Thompson, and Trahan, Johnson filed an appeal asking that those cases be applied retroactively and that his conviction be vacated.

In a unanimous decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that the rules announced in Birchfield, Thompson, and Trahan are to be applied retroactively and remanded his case to determine whether the conviction should be vacated.

So, what does this mean for Minnesotans with test-refusal convictions? The decision means that if you were convicted of test refusal prior to these cases and law enforcement requested a blood or urine test, you have good grounds to have your conviction vacated, even if you voluntarily pleaded guilty to test refusal. If you have a test refusal conviction and the case involved a blood or urine test, you should contact a DWI lawyer right away to assess your rights. Most lawyers do free consultations which will help you determine whether you should seek to have the test-refusal conviction removed from your criminal record.

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