The Minnesota DWI Case Of The Week is State v. Berzins (Decided January 28, 2019, Minnesota Court of Appeals, Unpublished) which stands for the proposition that if you are arrested for a DWI, the police have free reign to search your car.
In Berzins, Glencoe Police Officer Andrew Fiebelkom began following appellant’s SUV and watched it cross over the center line. After seeing the traffic violation, Officer Fiebelkom stopped the SUV and approached it on the driver’s side. Before Officer Fiebelkom could identify himself, the SUV driver asked why he had been stopped. Officer Fiebelkom explained that he stopped the SUV because it had gone over the center line.
While speaking with appellant, Officer Fiebelkom noticed that appellant was “on the nod,” which the officer testified to mean that appellant was falling asleep while talking to him. Officer Fiebelkom also observed that appellant had “droopy eyelids” and scabs on his arms and hands. Based on his experience working as a police officer and on the appearance and location of the scabs, Officer Fiebelkom identified such scabs as indicative of hypodermic-needle use.
Berzins was asked to get out of his vehicle and perform field sobriety tests. He was subsequently placed under arrest for DWI and based on his interaction with appellant, Officer Fiebelkom believed that evidence of drug use would be found inside the SUV. He decided to search it. Officer Fiebelkom began his search with the driver’s-side and center-console areas. In those areas, he found hypodermic needles, one of which appeared to have methamphetamine inside it. In the back seat on the driver’s side of the car, Officer Fiebelkom found a lunch pail containing needles, spoons, a scale, and a pill grinder containing a crystal-like substance that Officer Fiebelkom believed was methamphetamine. In the area where one of the passengers had been sitting, Officer Fiebelkom found another hypodermic needle and a small plastic bag containing approximately two grams of a crystal-like substance. Both the needle and the bag contained methamphetamine.
Appellant moved to suppress the drug evidence obtained from the search of his SUV. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied appellant’s motion to suppress. Appellant stipulated to the state’s case to obtain appellate review of the district court’s pretrial mling under Minn. R. Crim. P. 26.01, subd. 4. The district court found appellant guilty of felony fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance and misdemeanor fourth-degree controlled-substance DWI. Appellant was sentenced to 21 months in prison for the fifth-degree possession offense, and 90 days in jail for the DWI offense.
On appeal, Mr. Berzins argued the search was not justified under the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement under Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009). Alas, the Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed noting:
"A search incident to a lawful arrest is a well-recognized exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment. Gant, 556 U.S. at 338, 129 S. Ct. at 1716. Under this exception, and incident to a lawful arrest, police may make a contemporaneous search of a vehicle if a defendant has access to the area or if there is reason to believe that evidence of the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle. Id. at 343, 129 S. Ct. at 1719."
"Appellant argues that the search of his SUV was not valid under Gant because it was unreasonable for the officer to believe that evidence of driving while impaired would be in appellant’s SUV. Appellant asserts that “[t]he crime of DWI focuses upon evidence obtained from the driver, not other physical evidence, because it is the driver’s state of intoxication that is prohibited.” He claims that, because he was arrested “solely for the crime of DWI,” the officer already had the necessary evidence of the crime of arrest."
"The district court determined that it was reasonable for Officer Fiebelkom to believe that drug-use evidence might be found in appellant’s SUV based on appellant’s droopy eyelids, nodding off, puncture marks with scabs on his arms and hands, and appellant’s having failed two field-sobriety tests. The district court concluded that the warrantless search of appellant’s SUV was valid under the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement."
The Court of Appeals then states:
"Here, after Offficer Fiebelkom arrested appellant for a controlled-substance DWI, the officer formed a reasonable belief that drugs—evidence of the crime of arrest—would be found in appellant’s SUV. Officer Fiebelkom’s observation of multiple signs of dmg use reasonably led the officer to believe, based on his training and experience, that “controlled substances are usually inside the vehicle along with the driver.”
Sorry, but I have to agree with the defense on this one. Using the logic of the district court and court of appeals, every time a drunk is stopped while driving a motor vehicle, the police now have probable cause to search the vehicle for the offending liquor, beer or wine bottle(s)?.
While drugs often accompany the addict, the constitution requires more than just a generalized suspicion of criminal activity to justify a search. The Appellant's arms were not bleeding and there was nothing about the police encounter which gave the officer a reasonable (versus speculative) belief that the automobile contained drugs.
Moral Of The Story: Seek and ye shall find especially if you have a badge.
If you or a loved one have been charged with a Minnesota DWI, feel free to contact Minneapolis DWI Attorney, F. T. Sessoms at (612) 344-1505 for answers to all of your Minnesota DWI and DUI questions.