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Judge’s ruling means vehicular homicide case can proceed

Judge Dale O. Harris issued a ruling Friday outlining what evidence can and can’t be presented in the case against Vanessa Rae Brigan, the woman accused of causing a vehicular accident 15 months ago that left two Carlton County employees dead.

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Brigan is charged with two counts of felony criminal vehicular homicide while under the influence of a controlled substance in connection with a crash that killed Zachary M. Gamache, 25, of Esko and Mitchell D. Lingren, 29, of Duluth near Wright on the morning of Oct. 1, 2012, as she was on her way back from a methadone clinic in Brainerd.

Brigan’s defense attorney, John Lind, had motioned during the omnibus hearings last August and November to suppress evidence in two areas: statements made by Brigan at the accident scene and on the way to the hospital before she was read her Miranda rights, and the blood sample taken from Brigan at Community Memorial Hospital without a search warrant.

Judge Harris denied Lind’s motion to suppress the blood test results. Regarding the motion to suppress statements made to law enforcement officials at the scene of the accident and en route to the hospital, Harris both granted in part and denied in part the motion, attaching a memorandum explaining his decision and noting that the case shall be scheduled for pretrial hearings and a jury trial.

Lind argued that the blood draw was not legal because officers had not obtained a search warrant, because individuals have the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, according to both the Minnesota and the U.S. Constitutions. Furthermore, he argued — based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling issued eight months after the accident in Missouri v. McNeely — the accepted “exigent circumstances” allowing law enforcement to obtain a warrantless blood draw had not been met.

Although the judge agreed with the defense attorney that a law enforcement official should have tried to obtain a warrant in the hours between the accident and when a state trooper transported Brigan to CMH, he still denied the motion, because she never argued the need for a blood draw and because Brigan signed a consent form for the blood draw at the hospital.

The judge allowed statements to law enforcement made by Brigan after the accident — when she was placed in the back of a state trooper patrol vehicle — to  stand, ruling that she was not, in effect, “in custody” at that time.

“The court concludes that the conversation with the officers up until the point at which [Minnesota State Trooper Steven] Erola transported Defendant away from the accident scene was non-custodial,” the memorandum states, noting first that the Miranda v. Arizona case determined that police may not interrogate a suspect in custody unless the suspect first waives his or her constitutional protection against such interrogation and is advised of certain constitutional rights. “Defendant was in the back of a squad car, but was not handcuffed,” the memorandum continued. “Trooper Erola testified that the weather was cold that day, and that Defendant (unlike other drivers at the scene) could not remain in her own vehicle due to the damage it had sustained. Placing Defendant in a vehicle to keep her safe and out of the weather does not equate to custodial status. The conversations with Trooper Erola and Trooper Swanson, although at times accusatory in nature, were not lengthy or coercive.”

However, the judge noted, once Brigan was transported away from the accident scene the dynamics changed and he disallowed any statements made by Brigan from the time they left the scene until she was read her Miranda rights (after the blood draw) from being used in the courtroom.

“Clearly, her presence in the squad car at that point was beyond protection from the elements or safety,” the memorandum states. “… a reasonable person would have believed that she was in police custody to the degree  associated with formal arrest. Once Defendant was transported away from the scene in the back of a squad car, law enforcement could and should have performed a Miranda advisory prior to any additional questioning.”

Prosecuting attorney Jesse Berglund said the county attorney’s office is pleased with the judge’s ruling, “because it allows the State to present all of the evidence collected by law enforcement at trial.”

“There is nothing vital that was said at the time that is not being allowed in court, because from my understanding, she did not make any further incriminating statements while she was being transported to CMH,” Berglund said in an email to the Pine Journal on Tuesday.

No future court dates have yet been set in the case. Brigan has been in custody at the Carlton County jail since the accident.