The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently reversed a district court in an implied consent case involving probable cause for a DWI arrest. Porter v. Commissioner of Public Safety, No. 87-CV-11-337 (Minn. Ct. App. July 2, 2012) (unpublished) (available here). The facts in the case involved a patrolling officer encountering a car parked on the side of the road after midnight. The officer approached the vehicle and saw Angela Lynn Porter sitting in the front seat crying and a male in the passenger seat. The officer thought there may be a domestic situation and asked Ms. Porter to exit the vehicle before asking her what happened. While she told him about an argument with the male in the car, he noticed an odor of alcohol and asked how the car had arrived at the location. She told the officer that she was drunk and could not drive the car. Without any additional questioning about who drove the car, the officer administered field sobriety tests and arrested her for driving while impaired (DWI).
Ms. Porter challenged her subsequent driver’s license revocation in district court and argued that the officer did not have probable cause to believe she was in physical control of the vehicle. Even though the officer never followed-up on who was driving the vehicle and did not locate the ignition keys until after the arrest, the district court concluded that probable cause supported the arrest.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed while noting that physical control is not established merely by showing that someone is in a position to start a car. Instead, the officer must have evidence suggesting that the purported operator has or is about to make the vehicle a source of danger. In this case, the appellate court concluded that simply being in the driver’s seat under these circumstances was insufficient and stated that the officer could have solicited additional information about who was driving and the location of the ignition key. Accordingly, Court of Appeals reversed the license revocation.
Prior to this case, Minnesota courts have generally upheld DWI arrests of impaired individuals found in vehicles under various circumstances. These situations included instances where ignition keys had not been located. In fact, some courts declined to require officers to locate the ignition key before conducting an arrest. Although unpublished, the Porter decision is a reminder that officers need to conduct a thorough investigation before placing a person under arrest for DWI and being intoxicated in a parked car does not, by itself, necessarily provide a basis for arrest.
As the case demonstrates, the legality of DWI arrests is often fact-specific. A knowledgeable criminal defense attorney can increase the chances of reducing penalties or obtaining an acquittal.