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Court: Drunk passenger doesn't justify police search

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a police officer wasn't justified in searching the vehicle of a Winona woman because the passenger in her car was drunk.

"To allow a vehicle search solely because an adult passenger smelled of alcohol would be to permit highly speculative searches against a large group of entirely law-abiding motorists, including designated drivers," wrote Associate Justice Russell Anderson.

The officer involved in the search also said the woman, who was pulled over for speeding, was fidgety and talkative, and that he recognized her from a list of people flagged by narcotics officers.

But the court ruled that under the Minnesota Constitution, a drunken passenger, a twitchy driver and an unsubstantiated tip don't amount to reasonable suspicion for a search. As a result, three plastic bags of crack cocaine discovered during the search can't be used by Winona County prosecutors.

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The ruling is the latest in a series of decisions by the state's highest court that say the state constitution affords more protection from police searches than the U.S. Constitution and federal laws.

A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is not involved in the lawsuit, hailed the decision.

"The trend that we've seen at the ACLU with the U.S. Supreme Court is to slowly erode Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure rights," said Teresa Nelson, legal counsel for the ACLU in Minnesota. "It's encouraging that the state Supreme Court is filling in some of those protections with the state constitution."

But Winona County Attorney Chuck MacLean said the ruling makes roadways hampers police officers.

"I fear that the court's opinion today may unfortunately lead law enforcement officers to simply let the next drug-intoxicated driver get back in the car and drive away when the officers find a similarly drug-impaired driver in the future," he said.

On Feb. 8, 2004, Peggy Louise Burbach was pulled over for speeding by a Winona police officer. The officer said that when he approached the driver, he noticed the smell of alcohol. Burbach's passenger volunteered that he had been drinking. The officer gave Burbach a Breathalyzer test, which showed her blood-alcohol concentration was 0 percent.

The officer searched the vehicle anyway and discovered cocaine. Authorities tested Burbach's urine and discovered marijuana and cocaine in her system.

Prosecutors charged Burbach with drug possession, driving under the influence and other charges.

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Burbach's defense attorneys challenged the search, and a district court judge agreed to suppress the evidence from the search and drop the drug and DUI charges.

Prosecutors appealed, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the search was justified based on the smell of alcohol. The Supreme Court ruling reverses the appellate decision.

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