Thursday, February 14, 2008

MN DUI Law: One foot in the car and tossing the keys to a third party is not "Physical Control"

Snyder v. Comm'r of Pub. Safety, 2008 Minn. App. LEXIS 11
On September 2, 2006, Jason Snyder attended a wedding reception, where he was involved in an altercation with some of the other guests. The police arrived as Snyder, his wife, and two of their friends were walking toward a vehicle parked in a lot adjoining the reception site. As they approached, they observed Snyder unlock the driver's side door. Snyder opened the door, placed his right foot inside the passenger compartment, and had his left hand, which was holding keys, on the door. Snyder noticed Deputy Wirkkula approaching, and turned around and began walking toward the squad car. As he walked, he tossed the keys to his wife. Snyder was then arrested for DWI and his license was revoked under the implied consent law.

In reversing the decision of the District Court, the Court of Appeals stated that, "a person's license is revoked if he or she was in physical control of a vehicle and had an alcohol concentration higher than .08. "The term 'physical control' is more comprehensive than 'drive' or 'operate.'" The Minnesota Supreme Court has determined that an acceptable jury instruction describing "physical control" may read as follows: Being in a position to exercise dominion or control over the vehicle. Thus, a person is in physical control of a vehicle if he has the means to initiate any movement of that vehicle and he is in close proximity to the operating controls of the vehicle, and this is true whether the vehicle can be driven on the highway at that point or not.Furthermore, "physical control is meant to cover situations where an inebriated person is found in a parked vehicle under circumstances where the car, without too much difficulty, might again be started and become a source of danger to the operator, to others, or to property." Intent to operate does not have to be shown in order to find that an individual is in physical control. But mere presence in or about the vehicle is not enough to show physical control; a court examines the overall situation in making its determination. In certain circumstances, the overall situation has indicated that a defendant was in "physical control" of a vehicle even when not located inside the passenger compartment. For example, a motorist standing at the rear of the vehicle was found to be in "physical control" when the vehicle had a flat tire, the engine was running, the key was in the ignition, no one else was present, and she owned the vehicle. But often, whether the motorist involved is seated in the motor vehicle is an important factor involved in the overall consideration of whether he or she is exercising physical dominion over a vehicle. Moreover, Snyder handed his keys to a third party before getting into the car, ending the prospects for his driving or taking control of the vehicle. Before appellant relinquished his keys, he was someone who could start the car without much trouble. But a showing that he had physical control, creating danger, required evidence of special circumstances surrounding recent use, or evidence that he became seated or otherwise dealt with the operation of the car.
Based on the record the Court of Appeals found that Snyder could not be found to have been in "physical control" sufficient for license revocation under the implied consent law therefore the decision sustaining revocation of his license was reversed.

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