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.

  • Joe

    She wouldn’t have had to flee if she had been armed

    • Right. Because what could go wrong with two drunk people and a gun?

      Plus, you know, what if HE’d been armed?

      • Dave

        What could go RIGHT?

      • Suzanne

        Who’s to say he wouldn’t have used something else other than his fists to hurt her? Could have grabbed a cleaver from the kitchen, a base ball bat, or anything else around the house? No need for a gun!

        The car was a way to put safety between her, and her abuser.

        • The one weapon she had was her cellphone and THAT was irrelevant too as she didn’t have it on her person. That’s why she drove a mile.

          • Suzanne

            Yes…She did what she could to protect herself.

            Even if she had her cell phone, and was able to call 911, her being way out in the country made her vulnerable EVEN IF she was locked inside her car, just sitting there waiting for the sheriff.

            Who is to say her abuser couldn’t have found away to still get her sitting inside her car ? Spare keys? That baseball bat to the car window?

            She did the right thing to drive away…

          • I BELIEVE — and I’m going from memory from when i read the court file last summer — he had already smashed the window or was in the process of doing so.

          • Suzanne

            There you go…

            She MOST DEFINITELY did the right thing to save herself. Save herself, or be killed. Yes, someone on the road may have been hurt because of her being intoxicated. Glad that wasn’t the case.

            Glad she is still here with us.

    • Kassie

      A woman was just killed less than a mile from my house recently in a domestic situation. They both had knives. Someone still died.

      Another woman was killed just over a mile from my house recently in a domestic situation. He pulled a gun out of nowhere and shot her and shot at her father. She wouldn’t have had time to pull a gun to protect herself.

      And really, in what world is a domestic abuse victim allowed by their abuser to have a gun? Really? Do you know anything about domestic abuse? Quit trolling.

      • Joe

        Who said gun?

        • The facts of the case pretty much make the original question irrelevant. They were outside the home at the time of the argument and she fled to her car and locked the doors.

  • DavidG

    Not that I agree with the Gildea’s decision, but it was interesting that, when you asked Rep. Melin on Twitter if she was interested in taking up Justice Gildea’s invitation to fix the problem legislatively, she deflected, and refused to answer.

    • Dave

      It’s probably a loser issue. She would be attacked unmerciful for trying to weaken drunk-driving laws.

    • She seemed to say it wasn’t necessary; that discretion should be enough. Clearly it’s not and now there’s the weight of a Supreme Court decision for the Department of Public Safety and Lori Swanson to hang a hat on.

  • Jim G

    One of yesterday’s news articles asked the question:
    Is America rushing to embrace ‘stupid’?
    The answer is yes. This is a ‘literally stupid’ decision.

  • Allan Lofthus

    I’m confused by the facts of the case. Axelberg was charged under the “implied consent” law, which theoretically only kicks in when you refuse to participate in a blood, urine, or breathalyzer test. Does that mean Axelberg refused to take a sobriety test?

    MN has no mandatory penalty for a first DUI. If she had taken a test, been over the limit, and plead mitigating circumstance at trial I suspect the sentence would have been lighter.

    There is a reason that judges tend to hate mandatory minimum sentences – it takes away discretion.

    • She did take a urine test and she was at .16 but that’s not really an issue because implied consent gives the DPS commissioner the right to revoke your license if a police officer has probable cause to suspect DWI. A conviction, or even a test, isn’t required for the revocation, although test refusal is the hallmark of the law.

  • Susan

    Maybe she shouldn’t drink alcohol? That would have changed the whole scenario.

    • Christin

      The responsibility of abuse is on the abuser.

      • Whether she was drunk or not is almost irrelevant in terms of the implied consent law.

      • Susan

        I’m not blaming her for the abuse…I’m blaming her for driving drunk. If neither of them were drunk, there might not have been an altercation. If there was an altercation and she was not drunk, she would have been driving legally, and had no need to refuse the test.

    • Kassie

      Aside from the fact that it is totally gross that you are blaming the victim, I’m going to say that maybe there is an underlying mental health issue here that kept her with her abuser and she self medicated with alcohol.

    • SKP

      Yes. Let’s please blame the victim. I’m sure she was asking for it.

  • Update This reaction is in from Ryan Pacyga, the defense attorney in the case:

    “Today, we took a step backward. We have made great strides in recognizing the epidemic of domestic abuse. The majority decision comes to a conclusion that the legislature never contemplated or intended. It affects not only victims of assault, but other classes of people as well. By reading the statute so narrowly, the majority decision now leaves those driving within normal limits of their prescription medications without a remedy under the law. It also disintegrates the post-driving consumption defense. The court battle is now over, but there is still work to be done. I took this case on PRO BONO because I believe that the law is unjust. Now I’m looking for a legislator to sponsor an amendment to the law and make it right. We are not advocating drunk driving. What we are advocating for is reasonable application of the law.”

    • joetron2030

      I hope he finds a receptive legislator.

  • Gaston

    A decent cop would have tossed the hubby in jail and given the woman a ride home, case closed.

  • Gaston

    Perhaps someone who lives way out in the country and has no access to alternative modes of transportation should curtail their use of alchohol, in case they have to drive. If I was struck by a drunken women fleeing an abusive man, my feelings would be not that she shouldn’t have been driving, but that she shouldn’t have been drinking. I think that the law as it stands may encourage a change in lifestyle that endangers the public, and although I sympathize with her situation, I feel that a slap on the hand is in perfect order, and it may well be that the arresting officer, who would have been the only party with latitude in her case, felt that a lesson needed to be learned.

    • A couple of points:

      As with any Supreme Court ruling, the individual in the case isn’t really an issue in the big scheme of things because of the precedent the decision sets AND how the decision will be used and cited in future cases that may not parallel this one.

      Two, the woman didn’t live in the sticks. As I wrote. It occhred at a resort. They went to dinner and drank too much at dinner, then drove a mile to their cabin where they got into the fight. Then, she drove back to the restaurant .

      Also, she wasn’t pulled over.

      • Gaston

        What you just said Bob, is that they both drank and drove prior to the altercation. Application of implied consent and/or DWI law is in order, because the issue of drunk driving has nothing whatsoever to do with a domestic altercation. Axelberg made bad choices even before she was forced to make more bad choices. In this case the punishment fits the crime, and will help prevent it from happening again.

        • Right, because that’s what the ruling said. The affirmative defense cannot be used.