The Minnesota Supreme Court Rules That Not All Hazardous Substances Violate the Minnesota DWI Law!

Minnesota DWI Lawyer F. T. Sessoms writes that the Minnesota DWI Case Of The Week is State v. Carson (Decided October 11, 2017, Minnesota Supreme Court) which stands for the proposition that if a dangerous substance is not listed as a “hazardous substance” in the DWI statute, a person under the influence of the substance may not be convicted of a DWI.

In Carson, the Defendant was arrested three times for DWI. Each time she was arrested, her blood or urine was found to contain the chemical 1,1-difluoroethane (DFE). It appears that the Defendant would purchase cans of compressed air which contain DFE as a propellant and she would get high by inhaling, or “huffing” the chemical.

In three separate cases, respondent State of Minnesota charged Carson with two counts of third-degree DWI, Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.20, subd. l(2)-(3), 169A.26 (2016)—one for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of a hazardous substance and one for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance. Carson filed a motion to dismiss the hazardous-substance DWI charges because she claimed, in part, that there was insufficient evidence that she was under the influence of a “hazardous substance” as defined in Minn. Stat. § 169A.03, subd. 9.

During a contested omnibus hearing, a forensic scientist testified that DFE is “a propellant commonly seen in cans . . . usually found in products used to clean keyboards on computers.” The scientist explained:

[DFE] is commonly seen in a product called Dust-Off It is commonly abused as an inhalant simply because it is easy to obtain and you don’t need to be a particular age to acquire it or purchase it, and it will produce a pretty rapid high, as well.

The abuse comes from inhaling, whether it be through a small tube . . . or . . . a bag that is held over the nose and mouth of the person ….

It is flammable …. [T]he can is under pressure so there is a hazard. . . .

If it is inhaled … it can [cause injury].

The district court found that the characteristics of DFE made it a hazardous substance under the DWI statutes and denied Carson’s motion to dismiss. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court but the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed, noting:

“In Minnesota, it is a crime to drive, operate, or be in physical control of a motor vehicle while “the person is knowingly under the influence of a hazardous substance that affects the nervous system, brain, or muscles of the person so as to substantially impair the person’s ability to drive or operate the motor vehicle.” Minn. Stat. § 169A.20, subd. 1(3) (emphasis added). Hazardous substance, in turn, is defined as “any chemical or chemical compound that is listed as a hazardous substance in rules adopted under chapter 182 (occupational safety and health).” Minn. Stat. § 169A.03, subd. 9 (emphasis added).”

“Chapter 5206 contains a specific rule on hazardous substances, which includes a “[l]ist of hazardous substances” in alphabetical order.”
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“Carson contends that Minn. R. 5206.0400, subp. 5, is the only list of hazardous substances in the applicable rules, and that this list does not include DFE. The State argues that Minn. R. 5206.0400 acknowledges that the list of hazardous substances in subpart 5 of the rule is “illustrative” and “does not include all hazardous substances.” As a result, the State contends that Minn. R. 5206.0100, subp. 7(B), contains “a list of characteristics which, if possessed, would make a chemical or substance or a mixture … a hazardous substance.” According to the State, DFE meets the definition of a hazardous substance under Minn. Stat. § 169A.03, subd. 9, because it “possesses a number of characteristics listed under Minn. R. 5206.0100, subp. 7(B).”

In rejecting the State’s position, the Minnesota Supreme Court correctly held:

“If the Legislature had wanted to criminalize the operation of a motor vehicle while knowingly under the influence of any substance that meets the definition of a hazardous substance for purposes of the occupational safety and health rules, it knew how to do so and could have done so explicitly by using a phrase like “has the meaning given.” The statutory language plainly demonstrates that the types of hazardous substances that can give rise to a driving-while-impaired conviction are limited to those substances specifically listed in Minn. R. 5206.0400, subp. 5.”

“We acknowledge that based on our holding today, a driver dangerously intoxicated by DFE is not criminally liable under the plain language of the current DWI statutes. The dissent argues that the Legislature could not have intended this outcome. In other words, the dissent concludes that the Legislature could not have intended to criminalize the operation of a motor vehicle while the driver is knowingly under the influence of only those chemical compounds that are explicitly listed as hazardous substances under the occupational health and safety rules. But “[fjhis 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.”

Moral Of The Story: Everyone Is Entitled To Know Beforehand If Their Conduct Is Illegal.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for a Minnesota DWI, feel free to contact Minnesota DWI Lawyer, F. T. Sessoms at (612) 344-1505 for answers to all of your Minnesota DWI questions.