Jennifer Axelberg was staying with her husband at a cabin in rural Kanabec County, Minnesota when they began to argue. Before long, the argument became physical, and Axelberg fled to her locked car to escape her drunk husband — who chased her all the way to the car. Unable to get to Axelberg through the locked car, he began to pound on the windshield. Cracks started to form in the glass. Axelberg feared he might reach her by shattering the windshield entirely.
So Axelberg put her key into the ignition, started the car, and drove less than a mile to escape her abuser. For doing so, the state took away her driver’s license.
Axelberg had also been drinking at the time of the altercation.
Ms. Axelberg’s case, which pits the state’s drunk driving law against a “necessity defense” claiming that driving while intoxicated was the least bad option for a woman who genuinely feared for her life, reached the Minnesota Supreme Court on Thursday — forcing the justices to grapple with a difficult question of whether the law allows a woman in Axelberg’s position to briefly endanger whoever happened to be on the roads with her that night in order to escape from a far more dangerous situation. Lower courts have held that, if Axelberg were charged with a crime, then the necessity defense could be available — but it is not available in a civil license-revocation hearing.
At least some of the justices indicated that they may be sympathetic to Axelberg’s position, however. Justice David Lillehaug, for example, asked the attorney for the state whether a person could have their licensed revoked if a person put a gun to their head and told them to drive drunk.