Monday, December 14, 2020

Minneapolis DWI Attorney F. T. Sessoms Blogs on Minnesota DWI: This Week's Featured Minnesota DWI Case

The Minnesota DWI Case Of The Week is State v. Berger (Decided December 14, 2020, Minnesota Court of Appeals, Unpublished) which stands for the proposition that field sobriety tests are not, in themselves, sufficient to justify a conviction for DWI.

In Berger, the Defendant was stopped by the police for leaving a public park after closing.  The officer spoke with Berger and noticed he had bloodshot eyes and smelled faintly of alcohol and marijuana.  A preliminary breath test of Mr. Berger revealed zero alcohol in his system.  The officer did not suspect Mr. Berger of being under the influence and he was released. The officer did arrest one of Berger's passengers as there was a warrant for the passenger's arrest.

When the officer arrived at the jail, Mr. Berger was already there to pick up the passenger after posting bond.  At that point, the officer was notified that Mr. Berger had a previous arrest in Iowa for possession of LSD and pills. The officer then decided to further investigate Mr. Berger.

The officer again talked to Mr. Berger and noticed his skin was flushed and his eyes appeared bloodshot and dilated.  The officer then administered three standard field sobriety tests: the modified Romberg test,  the walk-and-tum, and the one-leg stand. The officer also checked Berger’s pulse and pupil dilation.  After observing Berger’s performance on the field sobriety tests, the officer concluded that Berger failed each one and placed Berger under arrest.  A blood sample was then taken from Berger. The results of the test indicated the presence of THC, a controlled substance in Minnesota. 

Berger was charged with fourth-degree driving while under the influence of a controlled substance. Minn. Stat. § 169A.20, subd. 1(2) (2018). Instead of proceeding to trial, Berger agreed to a stipulated-facts trial and was convicted of the offense.

On Appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the district court, noting:

"When, as in this case, a conviction is based on circumstantial evidence, this court conducts a two-step analysis to determine whether the evidence supports a guilty verdict. State v. Silvernail, 831 N.W.2d 594, 598 (Minn. 2013). First, this court identifies the circumstances proved by viewing any conflicting evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict. Id. Then we determine whether the circumstances proved are consistent with the verdict of guilt and inconsistent with any other rational conclusion except that of guilt. Id. at 599. It is not enough that circumstances or inferences pointing to guilt are reasonable. Id. Guilt must be the only rational hypothesis this court can reach based on the proved circumstances. Id."

"Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, and taking into account the stipulated facts agreed to by the parties, we conclude that the following circumstances were proved. Officer Beck conducted a stop when he saw Berger’s car leaving a closed park. Officer Beck did not observe any traffic violations or poor driving prior to stopping Berger. During the stop, Officer Beck observed that Berger had bloodshot eyes and smelled faintly of alcohol and marijuana. Officer Beck also administered a preliminary breath test, which resulted in an alcohol concentration of 0.00. Because Officer Beck did not believe Berger was under the influence at that time, he released Berger. Later, while talking to Berger at the jail, Officer Beck observed that Berger had flushed skin, bloodshot eyes, and dilated pupils. After administering the field sobriety tests, Officer Beck determined that Berger failed each one. Finally, Berger’s blood test confirmed the presence of THC on the day of his arrest."

"Moving to the second step in our analysis, we must determine whether the circumstances proved above are consistent with guilt and inconsistent with any other rational hypothesis except guilt."

"In instances where courts have found sufficient evidence of driving while under the influence, stops were typically triggered by a vehicle collision or traffic violation, which demonstrated that the driver lacked that “clearness of intellect and control.”


"Erratic or aggressive driving has also often led to individuals being stopped on suspicion of driving while under the influence..."


"In sum, in cases where convictions for driving under the influence have been upheld, observable traffic violations or aggressive, poor driving generally preceded the stop and provided evidence that the driver was, indeed, driving under the influence."

"In contrast, in State v. Elmourabit, where the state relied primarily on outward manifestations of intoxication observed after the stop, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that the proof fell short of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. 373 N.W.2d 290, 291 (Minn. 1985). In Elmourabit, the respondent was convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol. Id. The district court relied on evidence that the respondent had been speeding, smelled of alcohol when stopped by police, had glassy and bloodshot eyes, was difficult to understand, and became aggressive multiple times during his interaction with police to support its guilty verdict. Id. at 291. But the supreme court concluded that “[t]he inferences to be draw from this evidence, however, are in somewhat uneasy equilibrium,” and led the court to decide that this proof fell short of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 293-94."

"Guided by this case law, we conclude that the circumstances proved here are inconsistent with a reasonable hypothesis of guilt. Silvemail, 831 N.W.2d at 599. Nothing in Officer Beck’s report suggests that Berger was driving poorly, violated any traffic laws, or acted out of the norm in any other substantive way."

"In reaching this conclusion, the supreme court’s decision in State v. Elmourabit is particularly instructive. 373 N.W.2d at 290. The circumstances in Berger’s case are less compelling than in Elmourabit. He was not stopped by Officer Beck because of poor driving, but because he was leaving a park at a time that it would normally be closed. Berger did not exhibit any aggressive behavior. Officer Beck did not suspect that Berger was under the influence during the stop and released him. Nor was Berger’s condition at the jail different from what Officer Beck had encountered shortly before when he decided to release Berger. Finally, although Berger was determined to have failed three of the field sobriety tests, we are mindful to avoid placing “too much significance” on field sobriety tests."

Moral Of The Story: If you have been released by the police, do not give them a second bite at the apple!

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.