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State v. Atwood

Supreme Court of Minnesota

March 13, 2019

State of Minnesota, Respondent,
Heath Allen Atwood, Appellant.

          Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Keith Ellison, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Travis J. Smith, Murray County Attorney, Slayton, Minnesota, for respondent.

          William J. Wetering, Hedeen, Hughes & Wetering, Worthington, Minnesota, for appellant.


         Blood samples are not "information" protected by the physician-patient privilege codified at Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(d) (2018).



          THISSEN, Justice.

         In this case, we must determine whether a blood sample drawn by a medical professional during the course of emergency medical treatment is "information" within the scope of Minnesota's statutory physician-patient privilege, codified at Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(d) (2018). The statute provides:

A licensed physician or surgeon, dentist, or chiropractor shall not, without the consent of the patient, be allowed to disclose any information or any opinion based thereon which the professional acquired in attending the patient in a professional capacity, and which was necessary to enable the professional to act in that capacity . . . .


         Because the district court determined that the physician-patient privilege covered a blood sample, it granted the defendant's motion to suppress the results of a blood-alcohol concentration test derived from the blood sample. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that a blood sample does not fall within the plain meaning of the word "information" as used in the statute, and therefore is not subject to the physician-patient privilege. State v. Atwood, 914 N.W.2d 422, 427 (Minn.App. 2018). We agree with the court of appeals that a blood sample is not covered by the physician-patient privilege. Accordingly, we affirm.


         Appellant Heath Atwood was injured while driving an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) on June 10, 2016. Medical personnel and a Murray County Deputy Sheriff responded to the emergency call regarding the accident. When the deputy was attending to Atwood and assisting medical personnel at the scene of the accident, he smelled an odor of alcohol coming from Atwood.

         Atwood was transported by ambulance to the Murray County Medical Center. The deputy arrived some time later. A doctor treating Atwood for his injuries told the deputy that Atwood was receiving a blood transfusion. Atwood was then airlifted to Sanford Medical Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for further medical treatment.[1]

         The deputy learned from a hospital staff member that, before the start of the blood transfusion, a blood sample had been drawn from Atwood to determine his blood type, and an extra vial of blood had been stored in the medical center's laboratory.[2] No medical tests had been performed on the extra vial of blood. The deputy obtained a search warrant to seize the extra vial of blood from the laboratory. The deputy then sent the blood sample to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) for alcohol-concentration testing. The result of the test showed that Atwood had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.155, well over the legal limit.

         The State charged Atwood with two counts of misdemeanor driving while impaired, under Minn. Stat. § 169A.20, subd. 1b(1), (5) (2018) (operation of an ATV while under the influence of alcohol and with a blood-alcohol concentration over 0.08). At a pretrial hearing, Atwood moved to suppress evidence of the results of testing done on the blood sample, asserting that the blood sample itself was protected by Minnesota's statutory physician-patient privilege, Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(d). The district court agreed with Atwood and held that the blood sample and the test results that the BCA derived from it should be suppressed. The district court reasoned that, although "no Minnesota appellate court has ever explicitly and necessarily held that a physical blood sample is 'information' for purposes of Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(d)," dicta in State v. Staat, 192 N.W.2d 192');">192 N.W.2d 192, 197 (Minn. 1971), and State v. Heaney, 689 N.W.2d 168');">689 N.W.2d 168, 173 (Minn. 2004), suggest that a blood sample falls within the definition of "information" protected by the privilege.

         The court of appeals reversed. It agreed with the district court that any relevant statements in Staat and Heaney were dicta. Atwood, 914 N.W.2d at 425. The court of appeals, however, concluded that a "blood sample" is not "information" under the statute. The court determined "information" is an unambiguous term and reversed:

"Information" has been defined as "[k]nowledge or facts learned, especially about a certain subject or event." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 901 (5th ed. 2011). According to Webster's Dictionary, "information" is "something received or obtained through informing [such as:] knowledge communicated by others or obtained from investigation, study, or instruction[;] knowledge of a particular event or situation[;] facts or figures ready for communication or use as distinguished from those incorporated in a formally organized branch of knowledge." Webster's Third New International Dictionary Unabridged 1160 (3d ed. 2002). Thus, information, by nature, is not physical and is about something. While information may be conveyed by way of a material object, such as a piece of paper, the medium by which information is communicated is not the information. On the other hand, a blood sample is material and does not, by itself, provide any information. That is, an individual cannot extract information about a patient solely by looking at a physical blood sample.

Id. at 427. We granted Atwood's petition for review.


         The sole issue before us is whether a blood sample is "information" for purposes of the statutory physician-patient privilege. Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(d). We review this question of statutory interpretation de novo. State v. deLottinville, 890 N.W.2d 116, 119 (Minn. 2017), cert. Denied __ U.S. __, __ 138 S.Ct. 377, 378 (2017).


         Our first task is to determine whether our prior decisions in Staat and Heaney bind us to a particular answer to the question of whether a blood sample is "information" under the statute. We are bound to our prior statements or rulings on an issue only when the statement or ruling was necessary to the decision in the case. See Jaeger v. Palladium Holdings, LLC, 884 N.W.2d 601, 610-11 (Minn. 2016). Notably, both the district court and the court of appeals determined that statements about the scope of the term "information" in Staat and Heaney are dicta. Atwood, 914 N.W.2d at 425.

         In Staat, the defendant was charged with unlawful possession of narcotics. 192 N.W.2d at 195. A hospital orderly discovered two bottles of narcotics when he removed and searched the defendant's clothing during a routine evaluation at a hospital. Id. at 194-95. The doctor subsequently based his decision to treat Staat for an overdose on the discovery of the bottles. Id. at 198 n.3. Law enforcement later obtained the bottles of narcotics from the hospital. Id. at 195. The defendant sought to exclude the bottles of narcotics from the trial, asserting that this evidence was protected by the physician-patient privilege.[3] Id. at 194-95.

         We stated in Staat that the defendant must satisfy each element of a four-part privilege test before the evidence would be excluded:

[T]o prevent disclosure of the [evidence at issue] . . . the evidence must persuade the trial court to find that (1) a confidential physician-patient relationship existed between defendant and the hospital physicians and other persons participating in defendant's examination and treatment, (2) during which they acquired 'information' of the type contemplated by the statute (3) while attending him, and (4) which was necessary for medical diagnosis and treatment.

Id. at 197. We held that because the hospital orderly who discovered the narcotics bottles was not acting as an agent of the doctor during the initial removal and search of the defendant's clothing, Staat failed to satisfy the third prong of the test. Id. at 198. That holding disposed of the case because failure under any one of the four prongs of the test doomed the defendant's assertion of the privilege. Id.

         Before reaching that determinative conclusion, we walked through the first two prongs of the test even though "the state [did] not dispute the existence of . . . foundational facts" as to those two prongs. Id. at 197. In so doing, we stated-without explicit statutory or policy analysis-that "the contents of the bottles falls within the scope of knowledge gained by the physicians, since the statute's broad language encompasses physical articles as well as verbal communications and any other knowledge . . . which [the doctor] obtained through his observation and examination." Id. The comments were not necessary to the decision in Staat because the defendant's ...

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