Stock photo: Greg Rosenke, Unsplash


Birchfield, Trahan and Thompson precedents control in implied-consent cases


Implied-consent law has been changing since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Birchfield v. North Dakota in 2016. That case decriminalized blood test refusal when police had no warrant.

In 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that Birchfield announced a new rule that applied retroactively. That was parsed by subsequent cases in Minnesota.

In the latest development Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that post-conviction claims for relief brought in several late 2019 felony test-refusal cases were time-barred by legislation.

Minn. Stat. § 590.01, subd. 4(c) allows two years from the date that either the U.S. Supreme Court or a Minnesota appellate court announces a legal interpretation that could become the basis of a new, retroactive rule of law applying to post-conviction petitions.

The two-year Birchfield window was applied in Minnesota by State v. Thompson and State v. Trahan in 2016, the Supreme Court said, although it was not until 2018 in two Johnson v. State opinions (Johnson I and Johnson II) that the court said they could be applied retroactively.

The 2018 starting time was adopted by the state Court of Appeals in 2020. But in Wednesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed, in an opinion written by Justice Paul Thissen. The case is Aili et al. v. State, a consolidated case of four respondents.

The court held that this time limit for barring post-conviction petitions does not violate the due process clauses of the Minnesota or U.S. constitutions.


Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen

Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen

Date the claim arises

The court’s analysis began with the post-conviction statute Minn. Stat. §§ 590.01–.11 and the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Teague v. Lane.

The usual two-year time limit requires that a petition for post-conviction relief be filed within two years after a conviction becomes final. However, exceptions apply.

Thissen writes:

“One of those exceptions—the retroactive new interpretation of law exception—is at issue here. It provides that a district court may hear a post-conviction petition filed later than two years after the initial judgment of conviction or sentence becomes final if ‘the petitioner asserts a new interpretation of federal or state constitutional or statutory law by either the United States Supreme Court or a Minnesota appellate court and the petitioner establishes that this interpretation is retroactively applicable to the petitioner’s case.’ The Legislature also specified that ‘[a]ny petition invoking an exception provided in [subdivision 4(b)] must be filed within two years of the date the claim arises.’” (Citations omitted.)

The court next held that the time limit begins to run when the petitioner knows or should know of the date the claim arises.

The court interpreted that to mean that the petitioner knows that he could assert a claim, not prevail on a claim, Thissen continued. That means the petitioner has information that his claim is not frivolous and is in the interests of justice, the court continued.


Date new law announced

The court then turned to the Teague standard for analyzing whether a rule of federal law applies retroactively. That requires an analysis of whether the rule is new or old, and substantive or procedural (substantive rules may be retroactive).

Under this analysis:

“A straightforward reading of the plain language to this exception makes clear that the provision applies to claims asserting that a court decision issued after a petitioner’s conviction has become final has announced a new rule of law that applies retroactively under the Teague standard,” Thissen said.

Accordingly, subdivision 4(b)(3) creates an exception to the two-year time limit for post-conviction petitions in subdivision 4(a), Thissen continues. That occurs when the petition asserts that a judicial opinion, issued post-conviction, announces a new, substantive rule that applies retroactively.

The court then turned to when a petitioner knows he has a claim based on a new substantive rule. The question is ruled by the date the court decision is made. According to the ruling:

“A post-conviction petitioner knows or should know he has a claim on the date that a court decision announces an interpretation of law that provides the basis for a claim that the petitioner is entitled to relief because the interpretation is a new rule of law that applies retroactively to the petitioner’s conviction.”

In this case, the court held, the pertinent decisions are the opinions that announced the Birchfield rule—Birchfield, Trahan and Thompson.

Thissen wrote in a footnote:

“Because Birchfield did not address urine test refusal convictions, the two-year time limit in Minn. Stat. § 590.01, subd. 4(c), did not begin to run on respondents’ new interpretation of law claims under subdivision 4(b)(3) until we decided Thompson and Trahan, applying the Birchfield rule in Minnesota.”

The respondents window of opportunity thus shut on Oct. 12, 2018, when the two Minnesota cases came down.

One of the problems with this ruling, respondents contended, is that the Minnesota case of Johnson I—establishing retroactivity in the state—did not come out until about six weeks before the window closed. They asked the court to extend or toll the time limit in the interests of justice.

The court declined, saying respondents could have brought their claim within two years of Trahan and Thompson, irrespective of Johnson I.


Constitutional claims rejected

The court determined that there was no separation-of-powers or due process violation in its ruling. It said that it did not encroach on the Legislature’s jurisdiction to set statutes of limitation.

It also rejected the respondents’ argument that by applying a new substantive rule—the Trahan and Thompson date—the court violated due process by punishing lawful conduct, and that the respondents could not waive that argument by raising it too late.

The Legislature has the power to place a procedural limit on petitioners who seek to challenge their convictions on those grounds using the remedy that the Legislature itself created, Thissen said.

Session/Law logo by Kirk Anderson