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.

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