An appellate court in Minnesota has upheld a DWI conviction for a woman who was charged with the crime after she drove away from a domestic abuse incident involving her husband.
Jennifer Marie Axelberg, 39, appealed her DWI conviction on the grounds that she feared for her life and needed to get as far away from her husband as possible after an argument turned physical. Jennifer asked the jury to overturn the previous ruling on the grounds of affirmative defense of necessity, which states that a defendant concedes they committed the act, but only because they had a justifiable reason to break the law. Unfortunately for Jennifer, the judges did not rule in her favor.
The Night in Question
The whole ordeal began on May 30, 2011, when Jennifer and her husband, Jason, decided to take a trip to their family cabin in Mora, Minnesota. The couple went for drinks at Fish Lake Resort, which is located less than a mile away from their cabin. Near the end of their time at the resort, the couple got into an argument.
The feuding couple returned to their cabin around 1:30 a.m., but the arguing didn’t stop there. After a short while the argument escalated, and court documents allege Jason:
- Pushed his wife;
- Struck her in the head twice; and
- Confiscated her cell phone.
Fearing for her safety, Jennifer retreated to the couple’s car and locked the doors. An enraged Jason punched the car’s windshield, causing it to crack. Not knowing what would happen if her husband got inside, Jennifer started the car and drove back to the resort as her husband chased after her. A witness called police, and they arrived on scene shortly thereafter.
The responding officer said that Jennifer did not appear to have any physical injuries, and he noted her calm demeanor while her husband was being booked on charges of domestic assault and disorderly conduct. Jennifer was later arrested on suspicion of driving while impaired.
Jennifer’s appeal centered on the necessity defense, which allows for a criminal act to be committed in a situation where there are no other options. In order to be successful when claiming the necessity defense, the defendant must prove three things:
- The defendant acted in such a manner to avoid a significant risk of harm; and
- No reasonable lawful means could have been used to escape the harm; and
- The harm avoided was greater than that caused by breaking the law.
The appeals court couldn’t draw from any similar cases during their deliberation, as the case was very unique. Judge Randolph Peterson issued the majority opinion, penning that although Jennifer was threatened with physical injury, she created an additional risk of injury to the general public by driving while impaired. Judge Peterson also stated that even if the court found the necessity defense did apply, the law limits what issues can be argued under its current state, and this case did not fall within that scope.
In addition, although it was not explicitly referenced by the majority opinion, the necessity defense is not applicable if the reason for citing the defense arose from the defendant’s own negligence or recklessness. It’s possible that the court viewed Jennifer’s decision to consume a good amount of alcohol – enough to be over the legal driving limit – as at least partially responsible for the escalating ordeal.
Even though the majority opinion shot down Jennifer’s appeal, it was not a unanimous decision. Judge Margaret H. Chutich wrote the dissenting opinion, which stated that although there was not a precedent for overturning such a case, she does not believe that should “foreclose[d] its availability.” She added that the Minnesota Supreme Court had previously granted the necessity defense when a specific statute did not exist for its application.
“I believe that the defense is available in cases where extraordinary circumstances exist,” penned Chutich.
Chutich also noted that Jason Axelberg later pleaded guilty to both the domestic assault and disorderly conduct charges, so there was little doubt that a physical altercation had taken place. She said she would have reversed the lower court’s decision.
Even though Jennifer’s appeal failed, there is still some ambiguity to the application of the necessity clause. It seems likely that legislation will be put forth in hopes of expanding the areas to which the clause can be applied.
Related sources: MyFoxTwinCities, Legal-Dictionary