Wesley Brooks agreed to provide the blood and urine samples that became the key evidence in each of his three drunken-driving convictions.
But can Brooks, of Prior Lake, and thousands of others like him across Minnesota, truly be said to have "consented" to providing a sample if refusing to do so results in criminal charges?
Yes, the Minnesota Supreme Court said in a ruling Wednesday heralded by law enforcement, although many legal observers say it leaves unanswered questions about the constitutionality of Minnesota's implied-consent law. That law, established in 1961, says anyone issued a driver's license has automatically agreed to chemical testing during a DWI arrest and the results can be used against them in court. Refusal results in criminal charges.
In a unanimous decision, the court rejected Brooks' argument that he didn't have a choice as to whether he should provide blood and urine samples, simply because refusing to do so is a crime in Minnesota.
"A driver's decision to agree to take a test is not coerced simply because Minnesota has attached the penalty of making it a crime to refuse the test," Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote in the opinion.
Bill Lemons, traffic safety resource prosecutor for the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, applauded the ruling as a sign that law enforcement has been doing things right.
"I think it makes clear that if you follow the implied-consent procedures and law, then the consent is valid and the test results admissible," Lemons said.
Ruling: 'Brooks consented'
The Brooks ruling was the first case analyzing how Minnesota law could be affected in the wake of Missouri vs. McNeely, an April U.S. Supreme Court decision that said police officers must try to get a search warrant for a blood sample if they want it to hold up in court. The fact that alcohol quickly dissipates in the blood is no longer justification for not getting a judge's sign-off, the high court reasoned.
Brooks also argued that police should have obtained a search warrant before taking the samples. The court reasoned that because Brooks consented, warrants weren't necessary in his case because he agreed to provide the samples after being read the implied-consent law. Brooks also was allowed to contact his attorney in each case.
"By reading Brooks the implied consent advisory, police made clear to him that he had a choice of whether to submit to testing," Gildea wrote. "While an individual does not necessarily need to know he or she has a right to refuse a search for consent to be voluntary, the fact that someone submits to the search after being told that he or she can say no to the search supports a finding of voluntariness."
In a concurring opinion, Justice David Stras agreed that no warrant was necessary but disagreed that implied consent does not amount to coercion.
"It's hard to imagine how Brooks' consent could have been voluntary when he was advised that refusal to consent to a search is a crime." Stras wrote.
Stras' statement "casts a dark shadow on Minnesota's criminal test refusal law," said defense attorney Charles Ramsay, who has taken on the implied-consent law in similar cases and is closely watching the debate play out. Wednesday's ruling muddled the debate, rather than clarifying it, he said, which could create a backlog in a state where an estimated 30,000 people are charged annually with drunken driving.
"This doesn't answer our questions; it prolongs them. You're going to see more citizens fighting their DWI charges," Ramsay said. "Judges and defense attorneys were hoping this one decision would put an end to them all, but now it'll require a case-by-case analysis of all of those pending cases."
Brooks' attorney, Jeff Sheridan, said that with his client's permission, he probably will petition the U.S. Supreme Court to address the implied-consent issue.
Reactions vary dramatically
In a statement, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the ruling proves that law enforcement has been doing things right all along.
"The court today essentially said that is the proper way to handle drunk-driving cases. If that process is followed, we prosecutors should be able to convict those with blood alcohol levels over the legal limit and not worry about the cases being overturned or thrown out."
Scott Swanson, director of academic achievement at the University of St. Thomas Law School, said Wednesday's ruling essentially "kicked the can down the road" for another court to review the constitutionality of Minnesota's implied-consent law and didn't look deeply into the issue of whether Brooks really could consent, under the circumstances.