The Minnesota Supreme Court issued a surprising and polarizing decision late last month in the case of Jennifer Axelberg, a victim of domestic violence whose flight from her abusive husband led to drunk driving charges. The case has received national attention from many who sympathize with the woman and feel that the loss of her driver’s license was unjust.
The case began in 2011 when Axelberg and her husband got into an argument while camping in rural Minnesota. The two had been drinking when Axelberg’s husband became violent and attacked her. After watching as her husband smashed her cellphone, Axelberg says she feared for her life and ran to hide in the car. Her husband pursued her and began pounding on the windshield, trying to get in the vehicle.
Axelberg says at that point she felt she had no choice but to drive away to safety and call the police. She drove a little over a mile down the road to a nearby convenience store where she called the authorities. To her surprise, the officers arrested not only her husband, but her as well, on drunk driving charges for her mile-long drive to call for help.
Though Axelberg’s DWI charges were ultimately dropped to careless driving, she had her license suspended for six months, something Axelberg felt set a dangerous precedent for other women who might be victims of domestic violence. As a result, she and her Minnesota drunk driving attorney appealed the matter, ultimately all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Axelberg argued that she should be able to use what’s known as the necessity defense as an excuse for her drunk driving. The necessity defense is claimed when a person argues that emergency circumstances existed that meant they had no choice to break the law, usually when their life or the lives of others close to them are threatened.
The Supreme Court, in a very contentious decision, sided against Axelberg. The Court voted 4-3 that her license suspension was valid and that the necessity defense could not be claimed under current Minnesota implied-consent law. The majority held that the current implied-consent law makes clear that any revocation hearing will be limited to discussion of only 10 issues, and the necessity defense does not appear on that list.
Additionally, the majority said that the necessity defense has historically only been used in criminal cases. In this case, Axelberg’s license suspension is not a criminal matter, but instead an administrative decision.
The dissenting justices were vehement in their disagreement, saying that majority opinion created a dangerous precedent where some women might have to choose between their own safety and drunk driving charges. Justice Alan Page wrote that the decision meant that victims of other crimes, such as sexual assault, kidnapping or other forms of physical violence would similarly be put in a position to choose between their own welfare and committing a crime.
The hope of many is that the Minnesota legislature takes up the issue and modifies existing laws to allow for exceptions in extraordinary cases like Axelberg’s.
Source: Article by David Chanen, published at StarTribune.com.