Bill could provide defense to abuse victims in DUI cases

When Jennifer Axelberg of Monticello tried to flee her husband during a fight at their cabin in Mora, she didn’t have much choice but to get in a car and drive for a mile to safety, even though she had enough to drink at dinner that she was driving under the influence.

As a result, the commissioner of public safety in Minnesota revoked her driver’s license under the state’s implied consent law.

Last year, when a divided Supreme Court upheld the revocation — there’s no provision in state law that allowed Axelberg to use her safety as a defense in the civil proceeding — Chief Justice Lori Gildea said it’s up to the Legislature to give domestic abuse victims some protection from DUI laws.

So on Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave the first hearing (watch) to a bill that does just that.

The legislation from Sen. Vicki Jensen (DFL-Owatanna) and Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson) adds a “defense of necessity”, giving people like Axelberg the right to argue that a threat to physical safety overrides the state’s right to revoke a driver’s license in a DUI case.

“While it’s a fairly rare situation, we heard that on occasion it occurs … in rural, isolated areas of the state,” Liz Richards, of Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, said.

But the bill has its detractors.

Joel Watney of Circle Pines, a former deputy attorney general in Minnesota, said the law doesn’t prevent people from fleeing to protect personal safety. “I don’t think there’s any person in this room who would seriously claim that a person in Ms. Axelberg’s position would consider the consequences,” he said. “We’re not forcing people to make a choice between license revocation and personal safety.”

He said losing a driver’s license while fleeing an abusive spouse is “a minor inconvenience” compared to the risk of injury of risk and death to innocent members of the public.

He also said the law is too broad, and defense attorneys will exploit it, creating the very situation the implied consent law was created to avoid.

“If this language were the law, (a defense attorney) will be in court tomorrow telling court how ‘it’s cold at night in Minnesota, the weather forecast is for below zero tonight, my client was kicked out of the bar and he didn’t have money for a cab. He had to sit in his car and he had to start it up.'”

The provisions of the bill may be included in an omnibus DUI bill later in the session.