Woman who drives drunk to avoid a beating loses license

If you drive a car while intoxicated in order to avoid being beaten by your husband, you cannot avoid a drunk driving license revocation, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled.

In May 2011, Jennifer Marie Axelberg and her husband, Jason, of Monticello, got into a fight at their cabin in Kanabec County after consuming alcohol at the Fish Lake Resort, about a mile away. Her husband hit her twice on the head, and when she fled to the car, he jumped up on the car and smashed the windshield. So, intoxicated, Ms. Axelberg drove back to the resort where a police officer arrested her husband for assault, and arrested her for drunk driving.

Axelberg said she shouldn’t have lost her license, citing a criminal case defense that a defendant can show that the harm that would have resulted from obeying a law would be more severe than the harm caused by breaking it. In this case, she says, she could have been severely beaten.

But a divided Minnesota Court of Appeals panel today said that defense can’t be used in so-called “implied consent” cases. Minnesota’s implied consent law requires you to submit to blood alcohol tests or lose your driver’s license.

“(Axelberg) was threatened with physical injury by her husband,” Judge Randolph Peterson ruled today. “But, 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.”

In her dissent to Peterson’s ruling, however, Judge Margaret H. Chutich said Axelberg’s defense should be allowed in a case like hers. “This well-established common-law defense provides a necessary safe harbor for those unfortunate few caught in a Hobson’s choice where ‘obedience to the law would . . . endanger[] some higher value.'”

“Necessity as a defense to a criminal act is widely recognized in Minnesota under the theory that ‘an act done from compulsion or necessity is not a crime,’” she wrote.

Here’s the full decision.

Update 4:05 p.m. — Ms. Axelberg’s attorney, Ryan Pacyga, says he will petition the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the case.

“With how far we’ve come in the domestic assault world; we’ve taken all those steps forward,” he said. “Today we took a step backwards.”

He also explained the difference between the “implied consent” case and a criminal case involving drunk driving — an area in which a person could argue the “necessary defense.”

“You’re presumed innocent in the criminal world. The government has the burden of proof. Prosecutors can bargain. The purpose behind the implied consent DWI statutes — they’ll argue publicly that it’s public safety — the reality is they’ll do anything they can to put a DWI on someone’s record,” he said.