Driving drunk in Minnesota with a loaded handgun within arm’s reach can land you in a heap of trouble.
The Minnesota Supreme Court has decided unanimously that having a loaded gun in a vehicle’s closed center console while driving constitutes “carrying” the firearm under state law. The decision in State v. Prigge came down to definitions of the words “on or about.”
In April 2016, Maple Grove police found a loaded pistol in the center console of a car driven by Christopher Michael Prigge, whom they had pulled over for suspected driving while intoxicated, according to court documents. Prigge was charged with “carrying a pistol on or about [his] clothes or person” while under the influence of alcohol in violation of Minn. Stat. § 624.7142, subd. 1(4) (2016).
Hennepin County District Court Judge Joseph Klein dismissed the weapon charge for lack of probable cause, writing that “‘carrying on or about the person’s clothes or person’ does not extend to a pistol within the closed center console — if never removed, and absent any evidence that it was ever handled or personally carried by the [d]efendant while he [was] under the influence of alcohol.”
The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that the phrase “‘carry a pistol on or about the person’s clothes or person’ … requires a physical nexus between the person or the person’s clothes and a pistol.”
Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice David Lillehaug dug deeply into English grammar and included dictionary definitions of the word “carry” and “about.” For the word “carry,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary includes the definition, “‘to move while supporting (as in a vehicle or in one’s hands or arms),’” Lillehaug wrote. The applicable American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language definitions of the word “about” include (1) “‘[a]pproximately; nearly” and (2) “[i]n the area or vicinity; near,’” he added.
Attorney Steven Tallen, a former police officer who represented the city of Maple Grove, focused on the word “about,” arguing that the pistol was “readily accessible.” The Supreme Court agreed with Tallen, reversing the appeals court’s decision and remanding the case to district court.
“Taken together, the only reasonable interpretation of the phrase ‘carry a pistol on or about the person’s clothes or person’ is that a person carries a pistol on or about one’s person by either (1) physically moving the pistol, or (2) having the pistol in one’s personal vicinity while moving. As a practical matter, for a pistol to be in one’s personal vicinity, it must be within arm’s reach,” Lillehaug concluded.
This was a case of first impression, according to Tallen.
“This is not only an officer safety but it’s a public safety [issue],” Tallen said in an interview. “If you’re driving down the road and you piss someone off, if they don’t have a gun, they may give you the finger, and if they do have a gun, they may shoot at you.”
The Suburban Hennepin County Prosecutors Association, which filed an amicus brief in support of the city of Maple Grove’s argument, was happy about the decision, according to association President Frank Rondoni, a senior partner with the Minneapolis firm Chestnut Cambronne.
“It was somewhat difficult for us to understand how the courts could perceive [an allegedly] drunk person with a loaded firearm in a compartment right next to them as not either having the weapon on them or about their person,” Rondoni said. “The decision made by the Supreme Court was very gratifying for us and, I believe, for all law enforcement.”
Prigge’s attorney, Scott Strouts, did not return calls seeking comment.
“It’s nice to be validated,” Tallen added. “It’s kind of a way of saying ‘Tallen isn’t the only guy who feels this way.’”