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Appeals court rejects DWI defendants probable cause challenge

By: Laura Brown//June 21, 2024//

Appeals court rejects DWI defendants probable cause challenge

By: Laura Brown//June 21, 2024//

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A Minnesota man exhibiting indications of impairment and sentenced to six years in prison for refusing to submit to chemical testing appealed his conviction, arguing that the state needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that police had probable cause to believe he was driving while impaired.

In State of Minnesota v. Samuel Alejondro Torrez, filed June 10, 2024, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held this was unnecessary so long as a valid search warrant for blood or urine test was supported by probable cause.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Department received a report that a car was “driving all over the road” in July 2020. Following the description of the car and license plate that the caller provided, an officer found a car matching the description and initiated a traffic stop. Approaching the car, the officer noticed that Samuel Torrez, who was not wearing a shirt, was twitching and jerking, sweating profusely, and unable to follow the conversation. However, the officer did not personally see erratic driving.

A second officer arrived on the scene, and observed the same behavior from Torrez. Additionally, the officer noticed that Torrez’s pupils were dilated and Torrez was grinding his teeth. Suspicious that Torrez might be under the influence of a controlled substance, the second officer conducted field sobriety tests on Torrez. Subsequently, Torrez was placed under arrest for suspected driving under the influence of a controlled substance.

A judge, finding that probable cause existed, issued a search warrant for a blood or urine sample to confirm. The officer showed Torrez the warrant, explaining it and providing the required test-refusal advisory. Repeatedly, Torrez refused to submit a blood or urine sample. He was charged with first-degree refusal to submit to chemical testing.

Torrez moved to suppress evidence against him. However, this was denied by the district court, as it concluded that the officers had probable cause to arrest Torrez for suspected driving while impaired due to observing indications of impairment. Furthermore, the district court concluded that the officers had probable cause to arrest Torrez after his performance on the field sobriety tests.

At a pretrial hearing, Torrez objected to the state’s jury instruction because it omitted the issue of probable cause. He argued that the jury needed to determine whether there was probable cause to believe that he was impaired. However, the court agreed with the state’s proposed jury instructions, and did not submit the issue of probable cause to the jury, reasoning that the jury did not need to determine probable cause because neither the warrant nor traffic stop was at issue in the trial.

The part of the model jury instruction that was not provided to the jury was: First, a peace officer had probable cause to believe that the defendant drove, operated, or was in physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.

Torrez was convicted in March 2023. He was sentenced to 72 months in prison for first-degree refusal to submit to chemical testing.

On appeal, Torrez argued that Minnesota law requires officers to have probable cause before arresting someone for DWI. He argued that removal of the issue of probable cause from before the jury eliminated his defense strategy at the trial. Conversely, the state argued that the probable cause issue did not need to go in front of the jury because the district court already found probable cause when it issued the search warrant.

“We take this opportunity to dispel confusion once and for all and hold that, at a trial for refusal to submit to chemical testing pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 169A.20, subd. 2(2), the state does not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that law enforcement had probable cause to believe the defendant was driving while impaired if there was a valid search warrant for a blood or urine test supported by probable cause,” wrote Judge Sarah Wheelock.

“In Minnesota, it is a crime for a person to refuse to submit to a chemical test of their blood or urine as required by a valid search warrant,” Wheelock wrote. “[T]he state did not need to prove probable cause a second time.”

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