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Minnesota Supreme Court Joins the Chorus by Announcing Birchfield is Retroactive

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Court of Minnesota ruled that Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a state cannot use criminal sanctions to compel a DWI blood test absent a search warrant, applies retroactively to final convictions on collateral review.

The Minnesota Supreme Court’s current decision puts the state in line with courts in other states that have ruled Birchfield to be retroactive. [See previous CLN coverage on this.]

In 2014, Mark Jerome Johnson was pulled over for using his turn signal improperly. He admitted that he had been drinking and failed a field sobriety test. Police arrested him for DWI and read him the Minnesota Implied Consent Advisory. When Johnson refused to consent to a chemical test for the presence of alcohol, he was charged with first-degree refusal. This was Johnson’s second refusal, which followed three or more prior impaired-driving incidents within the last 10 years, and he was sentenced to 51 months in prison.

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Birchfield. Two relevant cases followed Birchfield in Minnesota. In State v. Trahan, 886 N.W.2d 216 (Minn. 2016), the Minnesota Supreme Court held that “the Fourth Amendment prohibits convicting [a defendant] for refusing the blood test requested of him absent the existence of a warrant or exigent circumstances.” In State v. Thompson, 886 N.W.2d 224 (Minn. 2016), Minnesota’s top court held that “[a] warrantless blood test may not be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest of a suspected drunk driver.”

Johnson filed a petition for postconviction relief in which he argued that Birchfield and the two state court decisions announced a new, substantive rule of federal constitutional criminal law that was retroactively applicable to his convictions on collateral review. The district court concluded that the Birchfield rule is procedural and did not apply retroactively, and the court of appeals agreed. However, the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected that conclusion and reversed.

The Court applied the standard from Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), to determine whether the Birchfield rule applied retroactively. Because Birchfield was undoubtedly a new rule, it would only apply retroactively if it is substantive, rather than procedural, or if it is a new “watershed” rule of criminal procedure.

The Court focused on the first exception. A rule is substantive if it “alters the range of conduct or the class of persons that the law punishes.” Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348 (2004). On the other hand, a rule is procedural if it “regulate[s] only the manner of determining the defendant’s culpability.” Id.

The State argued that the Birchfield rule is procedural, controlling only police conduct and the scope of searches permissible under the Fourth Amendment. The Court found this argument unavailing, because the rule changed who can be prosecuted for test refusal. Prior to Birchfield, a person could be convicted of test refusal if he or she refused to submit to a blood test. After Birchfield, only a person who refused a blood test supported by a warrant could be prosecuted.

This cannot be procedural, concluded the Court.

“[F]or anyone convicted of test refusal for refusing a blood or urine test when the police did not have a warrant or a warrant exception did not apply, no procedure, ‘even the use of impeccable fact finding procedures,’ could now validate a conviction for test refusal because that crime no longer exists,” explained the Court. [emphasis supplied]

As a result of this analysis, the Court reversed the lower courts. The Court did not, however, reverse Johnson’s conviction, because Birchfield would allow for a warrantless blood draw on a showing of a valid exception to the warrant requirement. The Court left it to the district court to determine whether any exceptions applied. See: Johnson v. State, 916 N.W.2d 674 (Minn. 2018). 

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