When authorities have reason to believe that a drunken driver has caused a serious or fatal accident they have a right to draw the driver's blood to test its alcohol content without their consent and without a search warrant, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The ruling was greeted with relief by law enforcers.
The high court reversed a ruling by a Dakota County district judge in the case of Janet Sue Shriner, 48, of Burnsville.
Charges of drunken driving and criminal vehicular homicide were dismissed against Shriner involving a 2006 accident in Burnsville because the lower court ruled that police should have at least tried to obtain a warrant before taking her blood without her consent.
In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court said that the "rapid, natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood creates ... a circumstance [requiring immediate attention] that will justify police taking a warrantless, nonconsensual blood draw from a defendant" provided the officer has probable cause to believe that the defendant has committed criminal vehicular homicide or operation.
The case against Shriner has been on hold pending the Supreme Court ruling, but will now move forward.
"This decision in the Shriner case is very much appreciated," Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom said. "It's very positive news for law enforcement across our state."
State Patrol Maj. Mike Asleson, who was messaging all patrol staff about the ruling Friday afternoon, said it "will keep us from having to go through what we sort of felt were unnecessary hoops that just delayed the inevitable, which was getting the blood draw from the driver.
"We're grateful to the court for their ruling," Asleson said.
The case stemmed from an incident on May 8, 2006. Shriner, who had four previous drunken driving convictions, was "highly intoxicated" when she drove the wrong way in traffic and hit another vehicle head-on, injuring that driver. Shriner left the scene, still driving the wrong way but was eventually forcibly stopped by a Burnsville police officer.
The officer took her to a nearby hospital to have her blood drawn. She was charged with first-degree drunken driving, criminal vehicular homicide, fleeing police, driving after cancellation, leaving the scene of an accident and reckless driving.
But a judge dismissed the drunken driving and criminal vehicular operation charges after her attorney, Jeffrey Ring, argued that police should have at least tried to obtain a search warrant before the blood draw. The state Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.
The officer who stopped Shriner had no other duties at the accident scene, was six blocks from a hospital and testified that he had no fear that evidence would be destroyed by dissipation of alcohol, Ring argued.
He said the high court wasn't being asked to ban blood draws in all cases, but if officers don't have a search warrant, they would need to prove why it was unreasonable to get one.
Ring said Friday that "my opinion hasn't changed." He said he will advise Shriner "to consider asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review this because we'll never have better facts.
"I'm grateful there are two dissenters," Ring added.
Those two dissenters were Justices Helen Meyer and Paul H. Anderson.
"The majority today has created a new rule of law that erodes the rights of the citizens of Minnesota to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures," Meyer wrote.
The justice said she would allow a blood sample to be taken without the suspect's consent only if the officer "has a reasonable belief that the delay necessary to obtain a warrant ... threatens the destruction of evidence."
Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551