Editorial: Warrantless blood test is worrisome

Published 9:47 am Friday, October 23, 2015

Minnesota’s complex and rather unique set of laws governing how evidence is collected in suspected drunk-driving cases is in turmoil after a recent state Court of Appeals ruling.

Minnesota is one of a few states in which a suspect who refuses to take a blood or breath test can be charged under the state’s implied consent law. That law requires drivers to submit to DUI blood and urine tests or be charged with a more serious crime — refusing.

In some cases where a suspect refuses a test, police will get a warrant from a judge that allows them to take a blood test from the suspect without their consent.

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In 2013 a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police generally need a warrant to get blood and/or urine from a suspected drunk driver. But a divided Minnesota Supreme Court earlier this year upheld the constitutionality of a warrantless breath test for DUI, but it limited its ruling to breath tests, not blood tests.

Now comes the state Court of Appeals decision that adds further uncertainty and will likely force the state’s high court, and perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court, to offer clarification. Todd Trahan was stopped for erratic driving and failed a field sobriety test. He also refused to take a blood-alcohol test. Police, without a warrant, got a blood alcohol test from Trahan.

The Court of Appeals, in a split decision, said that went over the line.

“Blood draws are serious intrusions into the human body that implicate a person’s ‘most personal and deep-rooted expectations of privacy,’“ Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks wrote for the majority.

The questions about Minnesota’s evidence-gathering system are complicated and serious for both suspects and for the general public. Drunk driving claims many lives and society supports police in taking drunk drivers off the roads.

But an individual’s constitutional rights must also be vigorously defended.

In the most recent decision, we think the Court of Appeals got it right. Forcibly taking fluid from a person’s body without a warrant from a judge goes too far. Police have an option of getting a warrant. Some argue that in some cases it can take some time, meaning a blood-alcohol limit could go down by the time a test is taken. But protecting individual rights is more important than that risk.

This case will end up in the state’s highest court and will give the justices a chance to not only decide the specifics of the case, but also to revisit the question of whether the implied consent law is constitutionally viable.

That question is more complicated than whether someone should be forced to undergo a warrantless blood test. But the courts should always lean toward supporting individual constitutional rights.

— Mankato Free Press, Oct. 18

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