Minnesota Supreme Court Rules "Necessity" Defense Does Not Apply to DWI

Posted On May 21, 2014 by Daniel Koewler

Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court released its decision in the case of Axelberg v. Commission of Public Safety. In a 4-3 decision, the Court concluded that Minnesota's Commissioner of Public Safety has the absolute authority to revoke the driver's license of an intoxicated victim of domestic abuse if she (or he) tries to flee (or even hide from) their attacker in a motor vehicle.

The facts of the Axelberg case are sordid, and we laid them out for our readers when the Supreme Court accepted review of this case, but the case can be effectively summarized this way: Axelberg, who had been drinking, was assaulted by her husband at a remote location where they were vacationing. Axelberg, without a cell phone, eventually locked herself in her car to avoid her husband's assault. After he punched the windshield hard enough to break it, she started the vehicle and fled to a nearby resort, driving less than a mile. Axelberg's husband followed her on foot, and was only prevented from further assaulting Axelberg when police were called to the resort.

Axelberg's husband was arrested and taken into custody . . . and the Commissioner of Public Safety revoked Axelberg's driver's license due to the fact that her alcohol concentration was over the legal limit. The Minnesota Attorney General's Office appeared in Court, and argued that it not only had the right to revoke Axelberg's driver's license, but also that Axelberg did not even have the right to explain why she drove while over the legal limit, or raise the ancient, common law defense of "necessity."

Four justices from the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with the government attorneys, and concluded that Axelberg was precluded from even arguing that her flight to safety (for 9/10 of a mile along a deserted rural road) was permissible under Minnesota's Implied Consent law. Effectively, the Court concluded that because the Implied Consent law does not explicitly permit intoxicated drivers to flee from domestic assault as a last resort, the defense is entirely unavailable no matter how severe the situation. Today, Axelberg not only lost her license as a result of her decision to hide from her attacker, but this license revocation is treated exactly like a conviction for DWI for the purposes of enhancing future offenses.

The decision in Axelberg prompted three strongly worded dissents from three justices. One of the dissents, authored by Justice Lillehaug, wasted no time pointing out that the Commissioner of Public Safety, responsible for punishing Axelberg for her decision to flee from domestic abuse, has the statutory responsibility to promote, "the highest attainable standards of . . . justice for crime victims" and is actually expected, by statute, to advocate for the rights of victims of domestic violence. The dissent then pointed out that "it is hard to imagine that the Legislature intended that the judiciary revoke the license of victims who drive only to escape domestic violence."

A second dissent, authored by Justice Wright, underscored just how unreasonable the result in Axelberg really is, emphasizing that the role of our judicial system has always been to be fair, and that the defense of "necessity" has existed for centuries for just that reason - fairness in the application of our laws. Justice Wright then took the time to carefully outline the serious problems that our society continues to face when it comes to domestic violence - importantly pointing out how access to a vehicle should provide a level of independence and security to a battered woman . . . and not another shackle tying her to her abuser.

The final dissent, authored by Justice Page, neatly summarized the decision reached by the majority when it pointed out that, "By its decision, the court also discourages domestic abuse victims from even seeking refuge in a motor vehicle. Based on our case law, today's decision deprives many victims of domestic violence of the only available refuge." This dissent also highlighted a great deal of case law that would support the application of the "necessity" defense in an Implied Consent hearing.

The Axelberg case is a very troubling one, calling into question not just the problems our society continues to have with drunk drivers and domestic violence, but what role we expect our laws and our judges to fill in ordering that society. This includes questions about the role of our government attorneys, who pressed the Axelberg case all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Needless to say, as the authors of the amicus curiae brief that we filed in support of Axelberg, we are disappointed in the result reached in this case. Even more hard work was put into this case by Ryan Pacyga and his team, from the start of this case in Kanabec County all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The one question that needs to be answered now is this: does the Legislature have the political will to fix this situation and protect the rights of domestic abuse victims against an overly rigid set of DWI laws?