Scott Johnson

There are two types of criminal laws. One is statutory law, which is literally the letter of the law as created by our Minnesota legislature. The second is case law. Case laws are rulings made by judges as to how laws should be applied in criminal cases. Judges may use past case law decisions to help them determine how they should rule in a particular case. Case law establishes a precedent for future cases. 

Our State and Federal appellate courts hear cases appealing a judge’s ruling. They are brought before the appellate court by the prosecutor or defense attorney. Appellate courts determine whether the lower court’s ruling was in keeping with the Constitution and whether or not the actions of the police were reasonable. These two factors, “Constitutionality” and “Reasonableness,” are two lynch pins in our criminal justice system. After all, people obey laws because they believe that they are needed, reasonably enforced and do not unnecessarily infringe upon their rights.  

What courts consider constitutional and reasonable changes over time, reflecting changes in societal values. There are many examples of this. For instance, at one time the courts ruled that separate but equal access to public education did not violate our Constitution. As societal values changed, so did the court’s opinion.

For many years, it was constitutional and reasonable for police to question in-custody suspects without informing them of their right to legal counsel. The court changed its mind in a 1966 ruling involving an Arizona man, Ernesto Miranda, who was arrested for kidnapping and rape. The United States Supreme Court ruled that police should have informed him of this right. As a result, we have case law that is commonly referred to as a requirement to inform suspects of their “Miranda Rights.” This is a rule that police must follow.  

For many years, if a Minnesota police officer stopped a driver on suspicion of drunk driving, he or she was required to provide a sample of breath, blood or urine, to determine alcohol concentration. That changed a few years ago when the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that blood could only be obtained if the police officer obtained a search warrant from the court. The court’s rationale was that the drawing of blood was too intrusive to leave it to the discretion of the police. Several months later, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that this also applied to collecting a urine sample. That one still has police officers baffled. Apparently, the court did not consider the intrusion upon innocent drivers when drunk drivers crash 3,000-pound automobiles into them. Nevertheless, this is now the law in Minnesota. The rule police must abide by is, “To make sure that evidence is admissible in court, you best get a search warrant.” 

This is why police officers find a recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling so striking. In this case, two Minneapolis police officers witnessed a man selling crack cocaine. They arrested him but before they could place hands on him, he shoved his hand into his trousers and hid the baggie of crack cocaine in an orifice. He refused to remove the drugs. 

Officers took the man to a hospital and sought a search warrant from the court to have a physician remove the baggie of crack cocaine from his body cavity. A judge issued a search warrant based upon the facts, which constitute probable cause to believe the drugs were hidden. It included the words, “…on his body.” After consulting with the hospital’s attorney, the physician refused to remove the drugs because they were “in his body.” I wonder what would have happened if the bag would have ruptured? 

Officers then sought and received a second search warrant to remove the drugs from “in his body.” A physician then did so. With this evidence, the man was convicted of possession of cocaine. He appealed his conviction to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Neither party disputed the facts of the case. The Court ruled that a physician removing cocaine from the man’s body was too intrusive and therefore unreasonable, throwing out the evidence. Regardless of a judge twice issuing a search warrant, the crack cocaine was not admissible as evidence in court.

Our criminal justice system must always balance the rights of the individual versus the rights of society to remain safe. These decisions, however, are part of a pattern of judicial decisions that are making it ever more difficult for our police officers to do their jobs. I have observed that these decisions are like a pendulum. They swing one way for a number of years and then the other. No doubt, at some point of time the pendulum will begin to swing back. In the meantime, as police officers we question the detrimental effect upon the safety of everyone in our communities.

It will be interesting to see if the Hennepin County Attorney appeals this Minnesota Supreme Court case to the Federal appellate court. If not, it stands as the law in Minnesota. 

Minnesota police officers do not always agree with decisions made by our judges, but at least we used to know what the rules were. Now, we are scratching our heads wondering, “If search warrants, orders from the court to search for evidence, are no longer valid, then what exactly are the rules?” At this point, I guess if a drug dealer can conceal a bag of drugs up his you know what, he is home free. Is this reasonable? 


Recommended for you

Load comments