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Minnesota Supreme Court Announces Heightened Pleading Standard for Birchfield/Johnson Claims Raised in Collateral Postconviction Proceedings

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Minnesota announced a heightened pleading standard when a petitioner asserts a Birchfield/Johnson claim for relief in a collateral postconviction motion.

On March 22, 2012, deputies from the Washington County Sheriff’s Department found Jason Fagin asleep in his car. A pat search of Fagin produced a bag containing what appeared to be methamphetamine. In the vehicle, the deputies found needles, syringes, and spoons.

Fagin was “extremely impaired.” He was booked into the Washington County Jail whereupon he refused both a blood test and a urine test. Nothing in the record indicates the deputies sought a warrant for either test.

Fagin ultimately pleaded guilty to first-degree test-refusal under Minn. Stat. § 169A.20(2). In May 2017, Fagin filed a postconviction petition alleging that his test-refusal conviction was unconstitutional. The district court denied the petition on the grounds that Fagin had failed to prove that an exception to the warrant requirement did not exist. He appealed, and the court of appeals reversed, holding that the district court erred by placing the burden of proof regarding the absence of an exception to the warrant requirement on Fagin instead of the State. The Minnesota Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for review.

The Court observed that in 2016 the Supreme Court of the United States held that state statutes cannot compel submission to blood tests unless a warrant was first obtained or a recognized exception to the warrant requirement existed. Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016). Consequently, refusal to give a blood sample by a person suspected of driving under the influence could only be criminalized if (1) police had a valid warrant, or (2) some recognized exception applied. Id.

The Minnesota Supreme Court later held that the State may not criminalize the refusal of either blood tests or urine tests absent a warrant or a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. Johnson v. State, 916 N.W.2d 674 (Minn. 2018). The Court also held Birchfield and Johnson applied retroactively. Id.

But the Court had never before decided upon whose shoulders the burden of proof rested in a collateral attack of a test-refusal conviction asserting that neither a warrant nor a recognized exception existed. Ordinarily, most litigation about exceptions to the warrant requirement occur in a pretrial suppression hearing where the State bears the burden of proving an exception. State v. Morales, 176 N.W.2d 104 (Minn. 1970). However, “[u]nless otherwise ordered by the court, the burden of proof of the facts alleged in the [postconviction] petition shall be upon the petitioner to establish the facts by a fair preponderance of the evidence.” Minn. Stat. § 590.04. And in Tscheu v. State, 829 N.W.2d 400 (Minn. 2013), the Court held, “A petitioner bears the burden to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that facts exist that warrant postconviction relief.”

The Court recognized that placing the burden of proof on the petitioner requires the petitioner to prove two negatives: that no warrant existed and that no recognized exception existed. While proving no warrant existed is rather easy by showing no warrant was in the record, proving no exception existed could be a daunting task if the State stood silent by not alleging any particular exception or by alleging an exception without any explanation. This would be contrary to the Court’s jurisprudence that “equity is an important component of postconviction relief.” Carlton v. State, 816 N.W.2d 590 (Minn. 2012). Therefore, the Court ruled that when a petitioner asserts a Birchfield/Johnson claim, he or she must affirmatively allege that no search warrant was issued and that no warrant exception was applicable.

The State, in its responsive pleading, shall admit or deny the allegations. If a warrant exists, the State shall affix a copy of it to the responsive pleading. If the State claims an exception, the State shall identify the exception and plead its grounds in sufficient detail to give the petitioner adequate notice of the State’s petition.

Accordingly, the Court remanded to the district court with instructions to allow the parties to comply with this new heightened pleading standard. See: Fagin v. State, 933 N.W.2d 774 (Minn. 2019). 

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Fagin v. State



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