Minnesota considers 'necessity defense' in DWI cases

Jennifer Axelberg faced two bad choices on May 30, 2011. She could drive drunk, or risk a beating from her husband.

She had already been hit twice in the head and retreated to the car, but her husband climbed on the car and punched the windshield. He had her cell phone, so she drove to a business less than a mile away. Police arrived and her husband was arrested, but so was she with a blood alcohol content twice the legal limit. Her license was automatically revoked for about six months. Her attorney argued that wasn't fair.

More: Escaping domestic violence doesn't erase DWI, MN Supreme Court rules

Axelberg argued all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court that the drunk driving was what lawyers call a "necessity." The court disagreed, holding that revoking a license is a civil issue and the so-called "necessity" defense only exists in fighting the criminal charge. However, the legislature could change that.

The Senate Judiciary Committee last week debated a bill authored by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, that would allow someone facing license revocation to argue that driving drunk was a necessity because of a "threat to physical safety."

Retired police officer Chuck Gollup voiced a concern to us shared at the hearing: The bill could open the door to people blaming drunk driving on things like the cold weather.

"I'm very comfortable with the concept. How it plays out in the end, that may be one of my concerns; how it's written so it doesn't become a standard defense," Gollup said.

A representative of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women testified that this does not happen often, but when it does, it typically affects women in rural areas with few escape options. There was some talk at the committee hearing about making adjustments to the language to perhaps make it less prone to those slippery slope concerns.

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