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License revocation upheld; not ‘poisonous tree’s’ fruit

Alice Sherren Broomer//April 24, 2000//

License revocation upheld; not ‘poisonous tree’s’ fruit

Alice Sherren Broomer//April 24, 2000//

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A police officer has a factual basis supporting a belief that an automobile driver was intoxicated in violation of Minn. Stat. sec. 169.121, subd. 1 (1998), where the officer overheard another police officer tell the driver that he failed a preliminary breath test (PBT) and the officer knew that the driver had been asleep in his car with the engine running in a liquor store parking lot, ruled the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The defendant argued that his arrest for drunk driving, and the subsequent revocation of his driver’s license, was illegal under the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine because the PBT upon which the arresting officer based his suspicion was illegal.

The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the original PBT was not a “poisonous tree” and that defendant’s own actions were an intervening circumstance that would likely have led to his arrest anyway.

The case, which reversed the Court of Appeals, was considered and decided en banc without oral argument. The seven page decision, Knapp v. Commissioner of Public Safety, Minnesota Lawyer No. SC-84-00, was written by Justice Edward C. Stringer.

Knapp naps

Early in morning of June 30, 1998, two Wright County sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to check on the welfare of a person, later determined to be Michael Knapp, sleeping in the back seat of a parked car with the engine running. The officers arrived separately, and the first on the scene, Deputy Lang, administered a PBT on Knapp, which Knapp failed. The second officer, Deputy Holland, arrived in time to overhear Lang tell Knapp that he had failed the PBT, and that he must either stay with his car, walk home, or call for a ride. Lang also told Holland that Knapp was unable to drive because he had failed the PBT.

Knapp appeared to be calling someone on his cell phone as the officers drove separately in their squad cars to a parking lot across an alleyway where they parked and exchanged information unrelated to Knapp. Minutes later, Knapp drove through the alley directly in front of the squad cars. Holland stopped Knapp and arrested him for driving while intoxicated, and Knapp’s driver’s license was revoked pursuant to Minn. Stat. sec. 169.123 for driving a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

At the implied consent hearing, Holland testified that he could not personally verify that Knapp exhibited signs of intoxication, but that he suspected Knapp was guilty of driving while intoxicated based upon the information provided by Lang and his knowledge that Knapp had been sleeping in his car.

Knapp argued that Lang based his belief that Knapp was intoxicated solely on the fact that he was in the back seat of a parked car with the engine running, and that this fact alone does not constitute probable cause to administer a PBT. Knapp further argued that Holland’s subsequent stop was illegal under the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine because it was based on an illegally administered PBT.

The trial court sustained the revocation of Knapp’s driving privileges, and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that “[t]here were no facts in the record showing or providing a basis for inferring that Lang had a specific and articulable suspicion that Knapp was under the influence of alcohol.” The dissent argued that Holland had probable cause to stop Knapp based on information Lang provided him regarding the failed PBT combined with Holland’s knowledge that Knapp was in a liquor store parking lot, asleep in his car with the engine running. The dissent also observed that Holland’s stop may have been justified because Knapp failed to obey a police order not to drive.

The commissioner appealed, arguing that Knapp’s reliance on the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine was misplaced.

No tree, no fruit

The Supreme Court began its analysis by observing that the factual basis required to support a stop is minimal, and that the totality of the circumstance, including the events surrounding the stop, must be considered in determining whether the police had a reasonable basis justifying the stop.

The court then considered what facts were known to Holland when he stopped Knapp. “At the time Deputy Holland stopped [Knapp] he knew that [Knapp] had been sleeping in the back seat of a car with its engine running at 6:30 a.m. in the parking lot of a liquor store, he overheard Deputy Lang tell [Knapp] that he failed the PBT, he was told by Deputy Lang that [Knapp] had been ordered not to drive, and within minutes he saw [Knapp] drive directly in front of his squad car. Deputy Holland’s knowledge that [Knapp] failed the PBT was thus not only valid and admissible evidence in support of his stop and arrest of [Knapp]—it was also one of many factors constituting the factual basis for the stop,” wrote Stringer.

“Even if the administration of the first PBT was not supported by sufficient evidence, a dubious proposition given the facts here, we need not reach that issue because the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ doctrine does not taint Deputy Holland’s stop,” continued Stringer.

The court noted that several factors should be examined, including: the purpose and flagrancy of the misconduct, the presence of intervening circumstances, whether it is likely that the evidence would have been obtained in the absence of the illegality, and the temporal proximity of the illegality and the evidence alleged to be the fruit of the illegality.

The court went on to determine that there was no evidence of police misconduct, and that Knapp’s intoxication would likely have been discoverable wholly apart from any information about Knapp failing the PBT because Knapp drove his vehicle after Lang ordered him not to. After holding that the initial PBT is not a “poisonous tree” tainting Holland’s stop of Knapp, the court concluded that revocation of Knapp’s driver’s license was lawful.

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