Monday, July 28, 2014

Minnesota DWI Lawyer Blogs on Minnesota DWI: This Week's Featured Minnesota DWI Case

The Minnesota DWI Case of the Week is State v. Cunningham (Decided July 28, 2014, Minnesota Court of Appeals, Unpublished), which stands for the proposition that you are not "seized" under the Fourth Amendment if the police are doing a "welfare check".  The case is absurd.

In Cunningham, the police came upon the Defendant's apparently unoccupied vehicle as it was parked with its engine running and lights on.  The vehicle was located in a private parking lot and the officers drove up behind Cunningham's vehicle without activating their lights or siren.  The officers approached the car from either side and shone their flashlights into it, but they could not see inside because of heavy tinting on the vehicle's windows.  The officers then shone their lights into the vehicle's windshield and saw Cunningham and his passenger who appeared to be passed out.  After awaking Cunningham, the officers determined he was under the influence and placed him under arrest for third-degree dwi.

On appeal, the Defendant argued he was "seized" when the officers drove up behind his vehicle.  Cunningham claimed that since the police did not have any suspicion of criminal activity at the time of this seizure, all of the evidence concerning his intoxication and arrest was illegally obtained and must be suppressed.

The Court of Appeals disagreed noting, "A seizure occurs if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he or she was neither free to disregard the police questions or free to terminate the encounter"...."Not all contacts between police and an individual constitute a seizure. A person sitting in a parked car is not seized when an officer merely walks up to the person and asks questions.  But when police partially block a vehicle with a squad car, activate emergency lights, pound on the vehicle's window, and open the driver's door, that conduct amounts to a seizure".

So one would think from the above language of the Court's opinion that Mr. Cunningham was going to win.  After all, the police stopped their vehicle behind his and flashed their lights throughout his car.  

But the Court of Appeals goes on to rule that, "When an officer activated a squad car's emergency lights and pulls up behind a vehicle that is parked on a highway shoulder, that officer would not have communicated to a reasonable person that the officer was attempting to seize the person.  A reasonable person would have assumed that the officer was not doing anything other than checking to see what was going on and to offer help if needed. (Citing State v. Hanson, Minn.Sup. Court 1993) The same sort of welfare check was initiated by the officers here when they parked behind the vehicle, approached to look inside and awakened the sleeping or unconscious occupants."

The Court of Appeals in this case fails to appreciate the difference between Mr. Cunningham and State v. Hanson.  In Hanson, the defendant was stuck by the side of a busy highway in a broken down car.  Here the Defendant was lawfully parked in a private parking lot.  People park in private spaces all the time and there is no need to check on their "welfare".  And even if the police were there to check on the welfare of an "apparently unoccupied vehicle", the police could have done so without first initiating a seizure.

Moral Of The Story: If You Are Going To Get Drunk, Sleep It Off Outside Your Car.

F.T. Sessoms, Minnesota DWI Attorney, Minnesota DUI Lawyer, Minneapolis DWI Attorney, Minneapolis DUI Lawyer