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Associated Press, Published August 15 2013

Stearns County to require DWI search warrants

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Stearns County is poised to become the first in Minnesota to require law enforcement officers to obtain search warrants before taking blood samples from suspected drunken drivers who refuse blood tests.

The change follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Missouri case that has thrown DWI prosecutions into a state of uncertainty, the St. Cloud Times reported Thursday. That decision has led the vast majority of Stearns County judges to throw out at least one DWI case on the presumption that the state's "implied consent" advisory is unconstitutional.

The advisory is read to suspected impaired drivers. It says drivers are required to submit to a chemical test at the request of law enforcement or face a criminal charge if they refuse.

Because of the constitutional questions, Stearns County prosecutors have changed their traffic stop procedures. Police officers and deputies won't read the advisory but will ask the suspected impaired driver to voluntarily submit to a chemical test. If the driver refuses, the arresting police officer or deputy will seek a search warrant for a blood sample.

"I think that's pretty unique," said Bill Lemons, traffic safety resource prosecutor with the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. He said most judges in Minnesota are still upholding the state's implied consent law, which makes it a crime for a suspected impaired driver to refuse a test.

Local judges will be handling DWI warrant requests via fax from home outside of business hours. The local courts have purchased a portable fax machine that weekend "on-call" judges will take home if they don't already have one at their residence.

In the Missouri case, the high court said an officer must consider more than just how fast alcohol dissipates from the bloodstream when deciding whether to get a warrant. Minnesota is one of the states where dissipation of alcohol alone has been reason enough to take a sample without a warrant.

About 1,200 DWIs are charged in Stearns County each year, and Minnesota has a test refusal rate of about 12 percent. That works out to about 144 refusals per year in the central Minnesota county, a number expected to grow.

Sheriff John Sanner said it's a major change. Authorities said it puts a greater strain on officers to get the search warrant and a blood sample from the driver quickly at all hours. And it will have more judges up in the middle of the night responding to requests for search warrants.

The State Patrol has changed its policies to get search warrants in cases in which a suspected drunken driver causes an injury or death, said Capt. Al Kutz. But the attorney general's office has advised the patrol that it doesn't have to abandon the implied consent advisory in a basic DWI stop, he said.

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.