Court: OK to punish woman for fleeing abusive spouse

In a case that seemed to pit laws to protect domestic abuse victims against those designed to protect other drivers from drunks on the road, the Minnesota Supreme Court has sided with the latter.

Today, the Court settled the case of Jennifer Axelberg of Monticello, who was arrested for drunk driving when she tried to flee a fight with her husband at a cabin in Mora (I wrote about this case last June).

She had argued that she shouldn’t have had her driver’s license revoked because she was fleeing a far more serious crime.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected her defense, upholding her license revocation under the state’s implied consent law, the law which allows the Department of Public Safety to yank the driver’s license of anyone who refuses to be tested for driving under the influence.

“By driving while impaired, appellant created the very risk of physical injury to herself and to other highway users that the implied-consent statute is intended to prevent,” the Court of Appeals said.

Today, a divided Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals and said Axelberg’s license revocation was proper.

“Axelberg and our dissenting colleagues argue that is it bad public policy to force victims of domestic abuse to choose between license revocation and personal safety,” Justice Lorie Gildea, the chief justice, wrote in her opinion today. “This public policy concern should be directed to the Legislature because we must read this state’s laws as they are, not as some argue they should be.”

Axelberg contends that she was in fear for her life and that she made the only choice she could, given her husband’s violent behavior. But it is also true that when she made that choice, and drove with an alcohol concentration that was more than twice the legal limit, Axelberg created a substantial risk to public safety.

That Axelberg did not harm anyone is fortunate, but that fact does not provide a basis for us to discount the public safety risk impaired drivers present.

“The majority’s stingy reading of the statute produces injustice, not only here but in other cases,” countered Justice David Lillehaug in his dissent. “But the stakes are even higher for victims of domestic violence. Loss of a license may deprive them of financial independence, treatment and counseling services, transportation for their children, and the only reliable means of escape in the next emergency.”

Lillehaug suggested Gildea and her allies were favoring the letter of the law over the spirit of the law.

Justices Alan Page and Wilhelmina Wright also dissented from Gildea’s opinion.

“At 2 a.m. in a remote wooded area, he hit her twice in the head. With her violent husband standing between her and the house and her cell phone in his possession, Axelberg sought refuge in their car. Without a necessity defense, Axelberg violated the law simply by seeking refuge in the family car and, therefore, was subject to revocation of her driver’s license,” Justice Wright wrote today.

Social isolation is often an accessory to domestic violence, making the victim feel increasingly helpless and dependent on the abuser.

By controlling what the victim does and with whom she interacts, the abuser can destroy the victim’s support network and make her more physically vulnerable. Victims of domestic violence in rural areas are further isolated by geography.

For women in rural Minnesota and even the suburbs, where public transportation is generally unavailable, cars can provide a degree of social and economic independence and sometimes, as this case illustrates, a safe haven. Without the freedom a driver’s license affords, a victim of domestic violence is subject to even greater control by her abuser.

“Today the court, in essence, concludes that losing the privilege to drive is a small price to pay for saving your life,” Justice Page added, saying that the decision goes further than discouraging victims of domestic abuse to flee their attacker.

Here, Axelberg drove only when she faced near certain bodily injury or death. The risk to the public was minimized because she drove at a time and on a road not likely to have traffic, either vehicular or pedestrian, and drove only as far as necessary to obtain protection from her husband and no farther.

Indeed, it is the absence of other people that makes the necessity defense appropriate in this case. Thus, allowing the necessity defense in license revocation hearings … allows the district court to harmonize the interests of the general public with those of victims of physical or sexual violence.

But Justice Gildea was unmoved. “If the Implied Consent Law needs revision in order to make it embody a more sound public policy, the Legislature, not the judiciary, must be the reviser,” she said.

Related: See video of arguments in the case before the Minnesota Supreme Court.