DWI Illegal Seizure Overturned

A district court decision that held a driver charged with DWI had been illegally seized was reversed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals recently in the unpublished opinion Statev. Derek Wayne Johnson.

The stop occurred on April 8, 2011 when a Hibbing police officer was dispatched on a report that headlights had been seen on a mine dump. The officer drove on an all-terrain (ATV) trail to reach the area where the headlights were seen. Because the trail narrowed, the officer was forced to park his squad car and continue on foot to the immediate area where the headlights were seen. Upon approaching the lights, the officer saw an ATV with two individuals on it facing down the trail toward him. There was brush on both sides of the trail, so to leave the driver would have had to reverse and back out on the trail or drive forward directly past the officer. The ATV was not running, but the keys were in the ignition and the headlights were on. Johnson was driving the ATV and said that he and his passenger were out for a drive. The officer smelled alcohol and noticed that Johnson and his passenger had watery eyes. Johnson admitted to consuming a few beers, and the officer asked him to perform some field sobriety tests which he failed. Johnson was arrested and submitted to a breath test which revealed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.22.

Johnson was charged with 2nd degree Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) because he had a prior DWI conviction from 2009 and the high test results constituted an aggravating factor. Johnson brought a motion to suppress evidence and dismiss the charges on the basis that all the evidence was discovered after the officer illegally seized him. The district court granted Johnson’s motion and dismissed the charges finding that under a totality of the circumstances the seizure was illegal because “any reasonable person [ ] would have believed that they were not free to leave and that any attempt to leave could subject them to criminal charges of fleeing police officer.”

All parties agree that there was no reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity prior to the officer approaching the ATV, so the only issue for the district court and the Court of Appeals to consider is whether the officer’s actions constituted a seizure. Minnesota courts have previously held that not all encounters with a peace officer constitute a seizure. “A seizure occurs when an officer, ‘by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen.'” State v. Cripps, 533 N.W.2d 388, 391 (Minn. 1995). Under the objective reasonable-person standard, a seizure occurs when that person believes that he or she is not free to disregard police questioning or to leave. Id.

Johnson argued that there was a seizure because he was not free to leave because the officer was blocking the trail. However, the Court of Appeals determined that there was no seizure reasoning that the officer did not use any emergency lights, approached on foot, did not make any verbal commands and simply identified himself as law enforcement as he approached.

If you have been arrested for DWI speak to a Minneapolis Criminal Defense Attorney about your rights today.

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Categories: Criminal Defense, DWI