A common question we get is: how can you get a DWI if you were not even driving your vehicle? These scenarios often arise when someone is sleeping in their vehicle, they are walking somewhere near the vicinity of their car, or they are stuck on the side of the road. For some of those situations, the prosecution will attempt to prove that you were recently driving or operating your vehicle. For others, such as being asleep in the driver’s seat, the answer is Minnesota’s DWI laws include prohibiting a person from being in physical control of any motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, a controlled substance, an intoxicating substance, or with an alcohol concentration of .08 or more within two hours of being in physical control.

Minnesota’s rationale behind creating a physical control DWI law is that a person can make a vehicle a source of danger with little effort if they are in physical control of a car. Therefore, it creates a danger to others if a driver is under the influence and has the means to start operating their vehicle.

Applying Minnesota’s definition of physical control to fact-specific scenarios, however, has created a litany of precedent. One of the preeminent physical control cases is State v. Starfield. In this case, the Minnesota Supreme Court suggested a supplement to the standard jury instructions on physical control. This included considering:

  • defendant’s location in or by the vehicle,
  • the location of the keys,
  • whether the defendant was a passenger in the vehicle before it came to rest,
  • who owned the vehicle,
  • the extent to which the vehicle was inoperable, and
  • whether the vehicle if inoperable might have been rendered operable so as to be a danger to persons or property.

Importantly, intent to operate is not an element. The court reasoned that a “drunken intent is highly problematic and too easily manipulated after the fact.” However, in Snyder v. Commissioner of Public Safety, the court decided no physical control where a person was walking to their car and threw their car keys to their wife before they even entered the vehicle. The court reasoned that the person was not alone on the side of the road, did not enter the vehicle, the keys were not in the ignition, and gave the key to someone else.

In State v. Woodward, the court of appeals held a person in physical control of a motor vehicle after she was found outside her car with a flat tire. The keys were in the ignition and the engine was running. The court explained that having a flat tire “does not mean the car was incapable of movement and incapable of posing a threat to public safety.”

Minnesota courts tend to cast a wide net on physical control cases. Even so, the specific facts of your case will determine whether you are likely to succeed in challenging a physical control issue for your Minnesota DWI. Please contact us for a consultation at no charge.


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