What Constitutes "Physical Control" over Vehicle; New MN Decision Shifts Definition

The Minnesota Court of Appeals seems to have moved in the direction of common sense in its January 29th decision in the case of Snyder v. Commissioner of Public Safety. Please understand that in order to be charged with DWI and have your license taken away for that, you don’t have to have been driving. You don’t have to have been anywhere near a road. You only have to have been in “physical control” of a motor vehicle “in the State of Minnesota.”

At one time the “in the State” clause went on to say that you had to be on a roadway or public right of way, but that was deleted years ago. So now you can be in your own driveway, in a field, out on a frozen lake, or stuck in a ditch – it seems to make no difference. But the question of the “where” isn’t what I meant to be blogging about today. I mean here to focus on the “in physical control” part. Previous decisions said that each and every one of the following circumstances counted as being in physical control:

  • Being able to initiate any movement of the vehicle and being in close proximity to the controls.
  • Being drunk and found in a parked vehicle where the car might be started again “without too much difficulty.”
  • Standing at the rear of a car with a flat tire while the motor was running and the key was in the ignition.
  • Driver completely passed out, slumped over the wheel, by side of the road with the keys in the ignition.

So now we have this new case out of Wright County. It started out with a wedding reception where a fight broke out and someone called the police. When the police arrived they found people in the parking lot walking toward a car. One guy took out his keys, unlocked the door on the driver’s side, opened the door and put his foot inside the car. Then he noticed the fact that he was being approached by a police officer, turned toward the officer, started walking toward the officer and tossed the keys to his wife.

Based on the law as it stood prior to last week, if this guy had called me I would have told him he was out of luck. He had his keys in his hand and his foot in the car. If standing behind the car while it’s running is enough, this must be too. The Wright County judge ruled that yes he was in physical control. To my surprise, and probably the surprise of everybody who has been watching this, the Court of Appeals ruled that he was not in physical control.

The Court of Appeals opinion says that to be in physical control you need more than just the fact that this person could start the car “without too much difficulty.” In addition the Court says that they will require that the person “has or is about to take some action that makes the motor vehicle a source of danger to themselves, to tohers, or to property.” Factors that the court considered were:

  • Keys were not in the ignition.
  • Person did not get in the driver’s seat.
  • Did not start engine.
  • Did not touch the steering wheel or the gear shift.

While the Court of Appeals is not admitting that they have made some new law here, it seems fairly clear to me that they have. I’m sitting here thinking about a call I received a few months ago from a gentleman who told me that he received a DWI for standing by the side of the road while a tow truck operator was pulling his car out of the ditch. I told him that yes I thought they could legally do that. If I received a call like that this morning, my answer would be quite different.

Executive Office of U.S. Trustee Suspends Debtor Audits

About a week ago BankruptcyLawNetwork.com reported that the Executive Office of the U.S. Trustee has suspended auditing of debtors filing for bankruptcy because Congress did not fund the audits in the 2008 appropiration. This is good news. Under the 2005 changes to the bankruptcy law, the U.S. Trustee could engage the services of outside accounting firms to audit the records of bankrupt debtors. At least until they find some funding somewhere, and they are looking for alternative sources, this auditing activity will come to a stop.

This does not mean that the Trustees themselves cannot continue requesting detailed information, documents and records from bankrupt debtors; and going over it with a fine tooth comb. It just means that they can’t hire outside accounting help to do it. When these audits were in progress, they only involved a very small percentage of the bankruptcy cases being filed. A much higher percentage of cases were investigated directly by U. S. Trustee personnel without outside help.

It is my hope that the failure to appropriate funds represents the beginning of a backlash against the so-called Bankruptcy Reform Act.

DWI and Canada Border Update

Since my first entry on this subject, I have noticed that the Star Tribune did an item about this on New Years Eve. Most of the article was not news to me, except for one thing: there was mention of a person who had a DWI reduced to careless who had trouble getting across the border. This surprised me because my earlier research on the subject seemed to indicate that as long as the driving offense was not a DWI, there would be no problem.

So I spent some additional time reading Canadian government web sites about this, but I will confess to still not knowing for sure exactly what they would be up to concerning someone who got the charge reduced to careless. What I saw was a statement indicating that a person who had a conviction of “dangerous driving” would have trouble crossing the border. How that translates into Minnesotan seems to me to be a bit questionable.

For now I would continue to suggest that having a careless would still be much better than having a straight DWI; but I would now caution anyone with either a careless or a DWI to consult with Border Crossing Services, that Winnipeg-based outfit, well in advance of any planned trip to Canada.

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

I am now receiving calls from people who have done what is called a “short sale” of their home to avoid a foreclosure. The typical situation is one where the value of the house has fallen below what is owed on the mortgage or mortgages, since often there is more than one. Meanwhile, the homeowners are falling behind in their payments. There are many possible reasons why they are behind in paying, but the most common is that one or more of the mortgages is an ARM, and the payments have jumped sky high The assumption may have been at the time of taking out the ARM that by the time the payments went up, they would be able to refinance again with a new and more reasonable mortgage. Now in this market that plan is pretty much out the window.

All the homeowners can think of it that they must avoid foreclosure. So they list the home for sale with a realtor. By and by the realtor finds a buyer, but it’s for a price that’s below the balance owing on the mortgages. This of course is no big surprise and is exactly what the homeowners figured was their best hope. The realtor contacts the mortgage lender or lenders, and the lenders agree to the sale. Specifically they will release their mortgage on the property in exchange for less than full payment. This can be a wise move from the point of view of the lender, because they were going to lose time and money in the event of a foreclosure anyway. The homeowners are relieved, go through with the sale, and move into a rented apartment.

The story does not have a happy ending. They do not live happily ever after. They neglected one thing. That release from the mortgage company just released the property, not them. There is an unpaid balance on the mortgage or mortgages, and the bill collectors start calling and threatening.

The amount they owe is way beyond any ability to pay they might have had; and so they call me about a bankruptcy. In my opinion, they would have been WAY better off to have just let the lenders foreclose. Ordinarily, foreclosure is done in such a way that the mortgage holder only gets the house and doesn’t get a right to go after the former homeowner personally. There may very well have been a possibility of living in the house rent free for a year or so and then walking away with no further debt.

Another possibility may have been that the first mortgage would foreclose and take the house. the second mortgage holder would not foreclose, let the house go, and then go after the former homeowners personally. That’s not such a good result, but it still includes the rent-free year or so.

Yet another possibility is that the release from the lender in the short sale DOES include a personal release. The former homeowners think all is well as they enjoy their new apartment. Then a 1099 arrives from the lender. The debt that was forgiven is reported as income to the IRS, and they may owe a tax on it.

My suggestion is that it is almost always best in the foregoing circumstances to just stay in the house and ride out the foreclosure. Don’t move out until the foreclosure is done, the redemption period has run out, and the lender starts an eviction action. If there is only one mortgage, you may come out of the process rather debt free and not need me. If there is more than one mortgage, you may have debt but at least no 1099. There may be circumstances where a short sale could be a good idea, but it is hard for me to think of one.

The idea that a short sale is the best thing for one’s credit seems to me to be an illusion. By the time the whole scenario is run, the credit report won’t look so good no matter what you do.

The Wisdom of Staying Home during a Blizzard

Well, I’m kind of a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” kind of guy. It’s hard for me to admit limitations. But I just finished a round of phone calls to my children and my Mother-in-Law (age 87, but acts like 57) cancelling tonight’s planned holiday family event.

We’ve had a tradition that some time during the holidays we all get together and head to downtown Minneapolis to go through the display formerly known as the Dayton’s display, now the Macy’s display. Upstairs in the old Dayton’s department store building, since time immemorial going back to at least the 1960s, there has been a wonderful, entertaining and sometimes inspiring display. This year the theme apparently is the Nutcracker.

Earlier in the day during the first round of phone conversations the consensus seemed to be: screw the weather, let’s go anyway. Since then the snow has gotten worse. Then my son reported that his car was covered with snow with ice underneath the snow. When he tried to clear it, he broke off a windshield wiper. After that I found out that one of my daughters is at her boyfriend’s place – which is in Eagan, further away from my place here in Minnetonka than I had figured.

So on with public TV’s version of the weather channel – which at my place is Channel 13. Quite a graphic depiction of the weather radar showed the weather pattern doing a circular thing where there was no sign of it passing by. Looks more like it intends to stick around quite a while.

The storm should be over by Christmas Day. At that time we’ll discuss maybe trying to go to Macy’s another day before the display ends; apparently it runs until New years‘ Eve. I’m disappointed, however, over not being the conquering hero who figured out how to do the event in the face of the nasty adverse conditions. In my business life I have often been that hero, pulling miracle rabbits out of my hat or out of various other places. But upon having given up on the idea of going out in this storm, I am feeling relief.

There’s a whole body of literature on the subject of how if one feels relief after making a decision, that’s a good sign that it was the right decision.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all. If you have taken the time to read all this, let me suggest that you turn off the computer now and get face to face with either a family member or a friend. If you can’t get face to face, at least try making use of that quaint and ancient device – the telephone.

In Elk River Most of Today

I have court early this afternoon in Elk River. Given all this snow this morning, I’ll be leaving the office in a few minutes. I may be hard to get a hold of for most of the rest of this day.

Getting a Pardon from the Queen of England for a Minnesota DWI

Well, maybe not exactly the Queen; but at least the government of Canada.

I’m no expert in international law, and my license to practice law only extends to the borders of Minnesota. However, I keep hearing stories about people who have received DWIs in Minnesota and who then have trouble getting across the Canadian border. It seems to be especially difficult if one wants to bring a gun and go hunting.

Apparently a DWI which we classify as a misdemeanor is considered to be a felony in Canada. Canadian law will keep a person from being able to enter that country for at least five years from the date of the conviction. After the five years expires, a Minnesotan can apply for “criminal rehabilitation” through a detailed and difficult process that looks to me to be a lot like applying for a pardon. One basically has to prove that probation is over, all fines are paid, all sentences served, and there’s a good reason to believe it won’t ever happen again. Hiring a Canadian lawyer for help with this would probably be a good idea. I understand there are law offices in Winnipeg that do quite a business in this sort of thing.

For a $200 fee the folks at the border station can issue a temporary pass even though the DWI is on the record, but this is up to the border officer’s discretion. There’s no way to know until you get there whether or not you will be allowed to cross the border. Again, I have heard stories about the border agent saying that entering the country was OK, but not with a gun; and don’t plan on hunting or carrying a weapon while on the Canadian side of the border. This can be really bad news for someone who pays big bucks for a fancy hunting trip deep into the Canadian wilderness.

The fact that this problem is out there is yet another reason why nobody in this state should go anywhere near a courthouse without a lawyer. If there is a DWI charge, but it is reduced to Careless Driving, crossing the border isn’t a problem. It’s only if it’s a straight DWI and not reduced to a lesser charge that this problem might arise. So if you should happen to get a DWI in Minnesota, and you are a person who regularly travels to Canada for work or recreation, make sure your lawyer knows about that part of your life – and of course make sure you have a lawyer.

Bankruptcy "Abuse" Wasn’t There; Today’s Falling Stock Market

I am looking this afternoon at an October 15th article in the Duluth News Tribune. A bankruptcy lawyer I know has posted it on a local bankruptcy list serve to which I subscribe. The headline, “Bankruptcy filings are on the rise” is not really news to me. But one of the sub-headings in the article really caught my eye: “ABUSE WASN’T THERE”

The article rehashes how the credit and banking industry had lobbied for passage of the 2005 new legislation on the theory that a large number of people had been “abusing” the bankruptcy system. But then it takes a closer look at the filings under the new law, especially the ratio between Chapter 7s – which is where most of the abuse was supposed to have been happening – and Chapter 13s – which are preferred by the banking industry. They note that the ratio between 7s and 13s is the same now as it was in 1999. That ratio together with quotes from a credit counselor at Lutheran Social Services seems to support the proposition that the perceived “abuse” never actually existed.

In fact, judging by the whipping that some of the banks and credit card companies seem to be taking in the stock market today, it seems clear to me that a great deal of irresponsible behavior – abuse if you want to call it that – was engaged in by the bankers and lenders themselves. At the time of this writing, the Dow is down 192 points; and it’s been dropping for several days in a row. It is my hope that our economy can absorb the shock that is being expressed in today’s market, but I’m not at all sure that we won’t wind up in a recession. If it happens, I don’t think it will be the consumers who will be to blame.

Lawyer buddies and what’s “Of Counsel”?

There are three or four other lawyers with whom I consult more or less constantly. Actually maybe it’s five other lawyers. Two are guys I office with, and the others are people I speak with a lot, usually by phone. I’m reluctant to name them because I don’t want them held responsible in any way for anything that I’ve done; but there are days when I have been temped to ask one or two of them if they would mind if I listed them as “of counsel” on my letterhead and web site.

That “of counsel” designation is something you will run into now and then as you are reading about or looking up lawyers. The meaning as I understand it is a bit vague, but it usually refers to a lawyer who is not an associate or partner, but who is in the same building or general vicinity, and with whom one consults a lot.

My Black’s Law Dictionary defines the term as a lawyer “employed to assist in the preparation or management of a cause, or its presentation on appeal, but who is not the principal attorney of record …” The usage of the term in my experience is much broader and would include lawyers who are around – that is physically present or close by – and with whom one consults; but I wouldn’t expect them to be actually “employed,” since generally there is no money changing hands. Today I ask one of them a question about something, tomorrow one of them may ask me. It’s a fair exchange usually, but not a monetary one.

OK. I’ll admit it. Sometimes it’s not exactly a fair exchange. Sometimes I monopolize the time of my friends to the point that it’s unfair to them and an embarrassment to me. On the other hand, I have done a few things for some of them that could be considered beyond the call of duty; so I think or like to think that in the end it does balance out.

I don’t think I could ever practice law and operate out of an office entirely by myself. It would never work for me. I need other lawyers around; people with whom I can chew over, mull around, run up flagpoles, dispute and otherwise try out ideas.

Boo!

It’s a quiet day at my office. Lots of people are calling with questions, but nobody wants to actually come see me. Every other day this week, I have lots of appointments. There must be something about Halloween where people think it’s a bad day to see a lawyer.

I certainly know a few lawyers who I felt may have been vampires, and others who seemed at least borderline demonic. It might be also that lawyers as a profession are more nocturnal than those engaged in many lines of work. A few years ago the wags on KS95 were making a point of telling lawyer jokes around 6 am on the theory that the lawyers would not be up yet at that time, which for the most part I believe was true.

I just received a call from a gentleman in the State of Tennessee. He had a bankruptcy question, but I recommended that he find a lawyer from his own state to ask. Bankruptcy law is federal, but the application of it still varies widely from state to state. There are many questions of interpretation of the new law where the individual courts disagree widely. Asset exemptions are set by state law, and that can make a dramatic difference in the outcome concerning what a debtor may be allowed to keep.

Yesterday a gentleman called who had moved within the past two years from Texas to Wisconsin to Minnesota. He wants to file a bankruptcy here. There are provisions of the new law which are intended to discourage shopping for favorable exemptions by moving from state to state. Under those provisions, if this gentleman wanted to file here right now he would probably have to claim the exemptions provided for under Texas law. What a mess! I have never practiced law in Texas, but all of a sudden I may need to know something about their exemption laws. The last time that happened I made a point of consulting with a lawyer from the state in question. Every now and then I get a call from a lawyer in some other state with a similar question about Minnesota exemption laws.

This has been quite a ramble, if you have managed to keep reading to this point. All I meant to say was HAPPY HALLOWEEN.!