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Bar Buzz: Supreme Court overturns driver’s ‘huffing’ conviction

For the time being, at least, huffing and driving do mix, legally speaking.

The Minnesota Supreme Court on Oct. 11 ruled that a chemical commonly sold as the computer-cleaning product “Dust-Off” is not a “hazardous substance” under state law, and therefore cannot lead to a DWI conviction.

The decision overturns a Mower County woman’s gross misdemeanor DWI conviction.

After three incidents in late 2014 and early 2015, Chantel Lynn Carson, 28, of Austin, was found unconscious in her car and charged with driving while intoxicated. One of the charges was for “operating a motor vehicle under a hazardous substance.”

Carson filed a motion to dismiss that charge because, she claimed in part, the state lacked evidence that she was under the influence of a “hazardous substance.”

The Supreme Court ruled that she was right.

The chemical in the cleaner, 1,1-difluoroethane (DFE), is not legally a hazardous substance that can lead to a DWI conviction under Minnesota Statute 169A.03, the court ruled. That is because it is not mentioned as a hazardous substance under Chapter 5206 of the Minnesota Administrative Rules, justices ruled.

The ruling overturns an earlier state appeals court decision that upheld the Steele County District Court’s decision. The Supreme Court held that Minnesota statutes plainly show all of the hazardous substances that can lead to a driving-while-impaired conviction are listed in rules Chapter 5206. DFE is not among them.

Justice Natalie E. Hudson’s opinion acknowledges that the ruling means that drivers “dangerously intoxicated” by the chemical will no longer be held criminally liable.

However, citing the 2014 case Axelberg v. Commissioner of Public Safety, Hudson suggested that outcome can’t be helped and that the ball is now in the Legislature’s court.

“[T]his public policy concern should be directed to the Legislature because we must read this state’s laws as they are, not as some argue they should be,” Hudson wrote, quoting the Axelberg ruling.

Justice Anne McKeig’s dissent protests that the ruling distorts legislative intent.

“Under the court’s interpretation of the statute, Minnesotans may inhale Dust-Off and then drive at their pleasure while endangering their fellow citizens,” McKeig wrote. “This impunity cannot be what the Legislature intended.”

In 2012, the Legislature made a brief attempt to modify statutes in a way that might have prevented the outcome. That year, former Rep. Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, authored House File 1719. It that would have simply deleted the word “hazardous” as a modifier of the word “substance” in Minnesota Statutes 169A.03.

That would thus have made it a crime to knowingly operate a motor vehicle “under the influence of a substance that affects the nervous system, brain, or muscles…”

The bill got several committee hearings in the House, said County Attorneys Association Executive Director Bob Small on Thursday. But it made no headway in the Senate, he said.

Small said there is a chance a new version of that bill might re-emerge in 2018. He said it is his understanding that the state’s DWI Task Force is working on similar legislation for the coming session.

That task force’s chair, David Bernstein, was traveling in Europe and was unavailable to confirm that.

In striking down the lower court’s ruling, the Supreme Court remanded the Carson’s case back to district court for further proceedings consistent with the its opinion.

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