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Sarah Smith, Forum News Service, Published December 19 2013

Warrantless searches in drunken driving cases at issue in 2011 crash

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. – The case involving a 2011 fatal crash on Highway 34 could be heading back to Minnesota’s Court of Appeals on the issue of whether a warrant must be obtained before an officer can take blood from a drunken driver.

The case of Dean Roehler was denied post-trial relief last week by Hubbard County District Judge Paul Rasmussen.

Roehler was appealing his conviction on 11 charges arising from a head-on crash in 2011 that killed a woman.

The state contended Roehler was legally drunk when his car crossed the center lane and hit Patricia Borman’s vehicle head-on. She died at the scene. Her daughter-in-law and grandson were injured.

A Hubbard County jury convicted Roehler after a two-day trial in 2012.

He asked for post-conviction relief, contending missteps by his attorney and the lack of a warrant allowed blood-alcohol evidence into the trial that should have been suppressed. Thus, his Fourth Amendment right to unreasonable search and seizure was violated, Roehler contended.

Rasmussen ruled that Roehler likely would have been convicted anyway because testimony from emergency crews at the crash scene indicated there was a strong smell of alcohol coming from Roehler, who was critically injured and comatose for two days.

Further, Rasmussen ruled that Roehler was given a standard and competent defense by Park Rapids attorney Joe Majors, who has been in practice for 40 years.

Three separate blood draws were taken from Roehler as he lay on a stretcher and after he was airlifted to a Fargo hospital.

The issue of drawing blood has been a highly litigated subject that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on earlier this year.

The court ruled that if “exigent circumstances” are present, officers need not get a warrant in a drunken-driving case.

Rasmussen ruled that “there were exigent circumstances present that made securing a warrant impractical,” including Roehler’s serious injuries.

In the case of Missouri v. McNeely, the Supreme Court stated that apart from the fact that a drunken driver’s blood-alcohol level would dissipate over time, that alone did not create enough of an exigent circumstance to forgo a warrant.

The court said each case must be decided on the totality of the circumstances.

Rasmussen ruled that since Highway 34 had to be shut down and emergency crews were fighting to stabilize Roehler, free him from the wreckage and get him to Fargo, a “warrantless search was reasonable.”

Rasmussen also ruled that Majors’ defense was not “performed in a constitutionally deficient manner” when he failed to object to the doctor-patient confidentiality provision that might have kept Roehler’s blood-alcohol results private.

The trial outcome would not have been different, Rasmussen ruled.

None of the blood tests showed Roehler to be legally over the limit in 2011, but a backward extrapolation of his blood results performed by a crime lab tech showed that at the time of the crash, Roehler could have been legally drunk.

Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne said he could not discuss the case while it’s before the court but agreed the warrant issue “could be interesting” in an appeal.

Majors did not return a call seeking comment.

Roehler is serving a 57-month prison term for criminal vehicular operation.