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Post-conviction relief petition was timely, court rules

When and how a petition fighting a drunken driving conviction runs out was the subject of a recent decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. This time, the convicted party won out.

The case had its origins in a routine traffic stop. On May 7, 2011, Matthew William Edwards was pulled over after rolling through a stop sign. The officer who stopped him smelled liquor on his breath and a faint smell of marijuana coming from the vehicle.

Edwards failed a field sobriety test, and a preliminary breath test revealed an alcohol concentration of 0.05. The officer arrested Edwards, read the implied-consent advisory, and Edwards spoke with an attorney. A drug recognition expert performed tests and concluded that Edwards was under the influence of cannabis and unable to safely operate a motor vehicle. Police asked Edwards to take a blood or urine test, but he refused.

Edwards was charged with third-degree test refusal, to which he pleaded guilty. He was convicted in Sherburn County District Court, and he was discharged from probation in 2014.

But five years after that, Edwards petitioned for post-conviction relief, seeking to vacate his conviction because the test-refusal statute was unconstitutional as applied to him. His argument was based on the idea from the statutory “Birchfield rule” — which provides that the state may not criminalize refusal of a blood or a urine test absent a search warrant.

Because law enforcement did not have a warrant to search his blood or urine Edwards argued, his refusal to submit to a warrantless test could not be criminalized.

The state argued that Edwards’s petition was time-barred because he did not file it within two years of the Birchfield ruling. The Sherburne County District Court denied Edwards post-conviction relief for an abuse of discretion. He appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Edwards argued that the post-conviction court erred when it determined that, among other things, that the post-conviction court “incorrectly placed the burden on the State and found it established [the] single-factor exigency” — which was ruled by the federal case of Missouri v. McNeely.

The state argued that not only was Edwards’ petition untimely, but also that the post-conviction court did not err when it determined the McNeely rule is not retroactive. Edwards responded that his petition is timely because the two-year time limit for post-conviction petitions includes a new-interpretation-of-law exception in Minn. Stat. 590.01, subd. 4(b)(3).

The appellate court went with Edwards’ argument, saying that he filed his petition within two years of Johnson vs. State, which held that the Birchfield rule retroactively applies to final convictions on collateral review.

The court ultimately concluded that Edwards did timely file his petition for post-conviction relief from his 2011 test-refusal conviction by relying on the Birchfield rule — and because he filed his petition within two years of the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson.

The appellate court also said that McNeely applied retroactively to Edwards’s test-refusal conviction, and that the post-conviction court erred when it failed to follow the heightened pleading requirement and burden-shifting procedure set out in Fagin v. State. In that case, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that the state has the burden to show the presence of a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement.

In her opinion, Judge Jennifer L. Frisch wrote, “We agree with Edwards that remand is appropriate under Fagin. Here, the post-conviction court placed the burden solely on the state to prove no search warrant was obtained and that no exception to the warrant requirement existed.”

The court ruled that because the post-conviction court issued its decision just five days after the Supreme Court issued Fagin, it was understandable that it did not follow the burden-shifting procedure outlined in Fagin.

But, the appellate court said, the post-conviction court’s error is clear. The court concluded that a remand to the District Court should be required to allow the parties to comply with the new heightened standard. In the end, because neither Edwards nor the state has had the opportunity to follow the procedure outlined in Fagin, the case will be sent back to Sherburne County.

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