One simple, but often misunderstood, phrase in Minnesota’s DWI law has led courts to rule it is possible to be convicted of DWI without driving, or even being in, a motor vehicle. Though it seems odd to be convicted of “driving while intoxicated” without driving, that is how the law has come to be interpreted in Minnesota. Come along for the ride as we explain how to get a DWI without driving in Minnesota.
A Reading of the Law
According to “An Overview of Minnesota’s DWI Laws” produced by the Research Department of the Minnesota House of Representatives, “Minnesota’s DWI law stipulates that it is a crime: (1) to drive, operate, or be in physical control of any motor vehicle anywhere in the state while: under the influence of alcohol …” (emphasis added).
In the 1992 case State v. Starfield, an apparently inebriated Sandra Starfield was found sitting in the driver’s seat of a vehicle stuck in a snow-filled ditch with no keys in the ignition. Starfield denied she was driving the car when it became stuck, and deputies found the keys in her coat pocket. She later said her son was driving but had gone for help after the vehicle became stuck. Her son confirmed the story that he was the driver and said he went into the ditch when a tire blew. The judge determined prosecutors had not proved Starfield was driving the car but instructed the jury on the phrase to “be in physical control” of the car. “A person is in physical control of a motor vehicle when he or she is present in a vehicle and is in a position to either direct the movement of the vehicle or keep the vehicle from moving. It is not necessary for the engine to be running in order for a person to be in physical control of a motor vehicle.” The jury convicted Starfield of DWI on the basis of being in physical control of the vehicle, and the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the conviction.
More Rulings Back Strictness of Law
A subsequent case, State v. Fleck in 2010, affirmed that an individual could be deemed “in physical control” of the car even while sleeping. In this case, Daryl Fleck was found in the driver’s seat of his vehicle asleep with the door open and the keys laying in the console between seats. Police could find no evidence the car had been driven recently (it was cold to the touch, and in fact later would not start when investigators tried to start it). Fleck was convicted of being in physical control of the vehicle, and his conviction was upheld.
Again in 2014, in State v. Frisch, the higher courts upheld a conviction in which Daniel Frisch was found about 15 to 20 feet from his vehicle, buying a soda from a machine. The vehicle was running with the keys in the ignition and a passenger sitting in the front passenger seat. Frisch claimed he had parked the car there earlier to go to a nearby bar and had planned to walk home, but the jury convicted him, and the conviction was upheld.
All of these convictions and rulings speak to how seriously Minnesota lawmakers and courts feel about driving while intoxicated and its danger to the state’s citizens. They also speak to the complexity of the law and of the need for an experienced criminal defense attorney when you have been charged with a crime, such as driving while intoxicated. Jennifer Speas has more than 15 years of experience in all facets of Minnesota criminal law. Contact us when you need assistance with any type of criminal case.
Disclaimer: The content of this article does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Please contact Jennifer Speas to discuss the specifics of your case.