Refusing to Submit to DWI Testing: Minnesota Supreme Court Reverses Conviction

Posted On June 13, 2011 by Charles Ramsay

Recognizing that Minnesota's DWI test refusal law is more complicated that meets the eye, this week the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a man convicted of refusing to submit to a DWI test in State v. Koppi. The Court ruled that the trial court had given an erroneous jury instruction which did not accurately convey the law. The Court granted the driver a new trial as the error was not harmless.

The case supports our law firm's position that the criminal test refusal law is not as simple as, "did the person refuse to submit.| Just look at some of our previously blogs, including Refusing to Submit to a Blood Test Not Always a Crime In Minnesota.

There are numerous other facts that a jury must find as well before a driver can be convicted of test refusal. Koppi says that the criminal refusal law, Minnesota Statute section 169A.20, subdivision 2, incorporates the requirements from section 169A.51, of the Implied Consent Law. It specifically held, |Refusing a chemical test is not a crime, therefore, unless it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer had â??probable cause to believe the person was driving, operating, or in physical control of a motor vehicle' while impaired.|

Koppi held that Minnesota's standard jury instruction for DWI test refusal does not accurately convey the law. The trial court in Koppi read the following to the jury:

Probable cause means that the officer can explain the reason the officer believes it was more likely than not that the defendant drove, operated or was in physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.

10A Minn. Dist. Judges Assâ??n, Minnesota Practiceâ??Jury Instruction Guides, Criminal, CRIMJIG 29.28 (5th ed. Supp. 2009).

The jury instruction contains three flaws:

1. It does not require the officer to recite actual observations and circumstances supporting a finding of probable cause;

2. It fails to include the requirement that the jury evaluate the totality of the circumstances from the viewpoint of a reasonable police officer;

3. The instruction erroneously requires that an officer believe a driver was |more likely than not| driving while impaired, rather than the proper |honest and strong suspicion| standard.

Some defense attorneys may believe that amending the jury instruction from |probable cause| to |honest and strong suspicion| may be detrimental to the driver. But the new standard does not lower the standard; it merely gives greater guidance to the jury, taking away mathematical probabilities.

Although the court did not provide an actual jury instruction to be used, the court's guidance on developing a new standard included the requirement of |probability.|

The |honest and strong suspicion| standard requires more than mere suspicion, but less than the evidence required for a conviction. Probable cause requires only a probability or substantial chance of criminal activity, not an actual showing of such activity.

The court left for another day whether the trial court could substitute its own determination for that of the jury whether the driver had been given sufficient time to consult with an attorney. Meanwhile, the defense will continue to challenge Minnesota's test refusal law, including whether the statute is unconstitutionally vague and ambiguous. See Minnesota's Test Refusal Law: Findings a Loophole in a "Knotty" Law.

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