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Is It Possible to Drive Drunk without Driving?

Friday, February 5, 2010, 22:54 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

The Supreme Court of Minnesota says yes. This story is a couple weeks old, but I just got around to looking it up after the Den Parents mentioned it. From the perspective of both civil liberties and common sense, it’s a disturbing case.

I’m not a lawyer, but I am reasonable. Reason seems to be absent from the Minnesota Supreme Court’s finding.

Being drunk and asleep at the wheel of his car while it was parked in his apartment lot with the keys on the console was sufficient evidence to convict a Crookston man of drunken driving, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.

The article contains a bit more detail, but I would recommend going straight to the horse’s mouth and reading the court’s published decision.

The central issue addressed by the court appears to be this:

The question on review is whether the facts in the record and the legitimate inferences drawn from them would permit the jury to reasonably conclude that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the offense of which he was convicted, giving due regard to the presumption of innocence. State v. Crow, 730 N.W.2d 272, 280 (Minn. 2007); State v. Ulvinen, 313 N.W.2d 425, 428 (Minn. 1981).

The facts appear not to be in dispute. Fleck was sitting in the drive’s seat of his car, which was parked in his assigned parking space at the apartment complex where he lived. He was asleep when police found him. The front driver’s side door was open. The keys were on the console between the two front seats. The car was not running and appeared not to have been running recently at the time police found him there. The police did not try to start the vehicle, so they don’t know if it was operable, but at some point between Fleck’s arrest on June 11 and “shortly before” his August trial, police went back and were unable to start the car.

That bring up the question of what the law says. The court wrote:

Minnesota law provides that it is unlawful for “any person to drive, operate, or be in physical control of a motor vehicle” while under the influence of alcohol or with an alcohol concentration of .08 or more. Minn. Stat. § 169A.20, subd. 1(1), (5). The term “physical control” is more comprehensive than either the term to “drive” or to “operate.” State v. Harris, 295 Minn. 38, 43, 202 N.W.2d 878, 881 (1972). Physical control is meant to cover situations when an intoxicated person “is found in a parked vehicle under circumstances in which the [vehicle], without too much difficulty, might again be started and become a source of danger to the operator, to others, or to property.” State v. Starfield, 481 N.W.2d 834, 837 (Minn. 1992). Thus, a person is in physical control of a vehicle if he has the means to initiate any movement of that vehicle, and he is in close proximity to the operating controls of the vehicle. Id. We have held that “physical control” should be given “the broadest possible effect.” State v. Juncewski, 308 N.W.2d 316, 319 (Minn. 1981) (holding that the statute was amended to modify the requirement that a driver be in “actual physical control” by deleting the word “actual” so that the statute be given the broadest possible effect).

The purposes underlying the offense of being in physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol is to deter intoxicated persons from getting into vehicles except as passengers and to act as a preventive measure to “enable the drunken driver to be apprehended before he strikes.” Shane v. Comm’r of Pub. Safety, 587 N.W.2d 639, 641 (Minn. 1998) (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

The decision then goes on to cite other cases ruled on by the court and, as appeals courts do, use them as precedent.

The court then seems to move toward some objective standard of “physical control” by stating the following:

We consider a number of factors in determining whether a person is in physical control of a vehicle, including: the person’s location in proximity to the vehicle; the location of the keys; whether the person was a passenger in the vehicle; who owned the vehicle; and the vehicle’s operability.

By that standard, Fleck didn’t meet two of the four factors specified by the court. The keys were not in or near the ignition, and there was no indication that the car was operable. Yet rather than considering the multiple factors the court itself delineated, it found as follows:

Although the facts of this case are not those of the typical physical control case in which a jury can infer that the defendant was in physical control because he drove the vehicle to where it came to rest, a jury could reasonably find that Fleck, having been found intoxicated, alone, and sleeping behind the wheel of his own vehicle with the keys in the vehicle’s console, was in a position to exercise dominion or control over the vehicle and that he could, without too much difficulty, make the vehicle a source of danger.

The problem, in my view, is that the court moves beyond the question of “physical control” to embrace a standard of being “in a position to exercise dominion or control.” It is not at all clear that the law, as written, intends any such thing. Even if it does, how does one apply that standard consistently and objectively? If someone who is asleep in an inoperative vehicle with the keys not in or near the ignition is in a position to exercise dominion or control, then isn’t it even more so for the person who is awake, holding the keys in his hand, and walking past the car? What about someone who is standing on his front porch with the keys in his hand and the vehicle 20 feet away? If there is a line to be crossed, neither the law nor this decision is at all clear about what it is. The law allows the police and the jury to project onto a defendant intent that the prosecution need not prove. More importantly, in this case, the prosecution did not prove it.

A law must objectively define the behavior being criminalized in order to be enforced in a manner consistent with the constitutional right to due process. This law does not, so there is no way for the jury to have “reasonably [concluded] that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the offense of which he was convicted”. For that reason, I would have voted to reverse the decision.

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