A search warrant allowing police to test for alcohol in the blood of a suspected drunken driver also gives them the right to test for drugs without additional signoff, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
In what is the latest ruling in a variety of legal challenges to blood draws in DWI cases, the three-judge panel ruled in the first case of its kind that search warrants for any additional testing are not necessary once the blood is already taken.
The Appeals Court's opinion reverses an Anoka County District Judge's ruling throwing out the blood test results, which showed Debra Lee Fawcett had marijuana and prescription drugs in her system. No alcohol was found in Fawcett's system after the crash, in which she and another driver were injured.
Criminal defense attorney Ryan Pacyga, who did not represent Fawcett, called the court's decision a "significant" ruling and expects the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the case, with a chance that it could go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
"There's no prior authority whatsoever on this and that's usually when the Minnesota Supreme Court does weigh in on something," Pacyga said. "Second, this will affect a large number of people and it could spill over to other areas of criminal law. And third, it seems to be our hot-button issue right now in appellate courts around the nation. So I think for those three reasons it's more than likely something the Minnesota Supreme Court would take a look at."
Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said his office challenged the district court's decision because they believed law enforcement's actions were legal.
"We thought it was alcohol, but we tested it for drugs, too," Palumbo said. "We obtained the blood legally and under this ruling it was reasonable to test it for drugs."
In May 2014, Fawcett, 57, of Blaine, crashed into another vehicle after running a red light.
A Blaine police officer detected "a hint of an alcoholic beverage emanating from Fawcett's vehicle" and then "believed that he detected the odor of an alcoholic beverage on Fawcett's breath," according to court documents. Fawcett told the officer she had "two or three beers" before the crash, but denied being intoxicated.
A blood sample showed no alcohol in her system, but it tested positive for marijuana and prescription drugs.
She was charged with criminal vehicular operation and asked the district court to dismiss "all evidence of the presence of drugs in the blood sample."
Anoka County District Court concluded that testing for drugs was unlawful, before prosecutors appealed.
Prosecutors argued that once the state has lawfully obtained a person's blood sample, the person "has lost any legitimate expectation of privacy in any test results from that sample," while defense attorneys argued that allowing authorities to test the samples for more than what is authorized in a search warrant creates a dangerous precedent.
The three-judge Appeals Court panel agreed with prosecutors, saying that once the sample has left a person's body, it does not fall under the Fourth Amendment requiring a warrant, and that testing for drugs in addition to alcohol in a DWI case is not unreasonable.
"If the state lawfully obtains a blood sample for the purpose of chemical analysis, then a chemical analysis of the sample that does not offend standards of reasonableness is not a separate search requiring a warrant," wrote retired Appeals Court Judge Bruce D. Willis. He was joined in his decision by Judge Michael L. Kirk and Judge Larry B. Stauber.
Fawcett's attorney Mark Nyvold did not comment on the appellate court's decision.