What does “Impaired Driving” Mean in Minnesota?

You know you’re not supposed to drink and drive. You also probably know that you shouldn’t get behind the wheel if you’re high. But you also shouldn’t drive if you’re drowsy, while using a handheld device, or if you are otherwise distracted because you are eating or drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, or using a navigation system. You shouldn’t engage in any of these behaviors because they impair your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. That is why “Driving While Impaired” (DWI) is a criminal offense in Minnesota. And though each of these impairments increases the odds of causing an accident, injuries, or death, not all of them will get you arrested and charged with DWI.

Minnesota’s impaired driving laws, like the corresponding DUI (Driving Under the Influence) laws in other states, address impairment caused by alcohol, drugs, and other substances that impact a driver’s focus, awareness, judgment, coordination, and reaction times. Importantly, as with alcohol, just because you can legally use marijuana in Minnesota does not mean you can use it and then get behind the wheel while impaired by pot.

But what does “impaired driving” actually mean under Minnesota law such that you could face DWI charges and the possibility of a conviction, with all of the short and long-term consequences that come with it? 

The first thing to understand is that it is irrelevant whether or not you feel impaired after a drink or two or three or after a hit on a joint. What matters is whether the law, the arresting officer, and the results of a blood, breath, or urine test consider – and the evidence ultimately proves – that you were “under the influence” of a substance at the time of the arrest, regardless of whether you were impaired. 

Minnesota’s Impaired Driving Statute

While the title of Minnesota Statutes Section 169A.20 is “Driving While Impaired,” the language of that section makes it illegal to drive “under the influence” of various substances. Specifically, it is a crime for a person to operate a motor vehicle (including motorcycles, gas or electric scooters, golf carts, or motorboats) if: 

  • They are under the influence of alcohol;
  • They are under the influence of a controlled substance;
  • They are under the influence of an intoxicating substance and the person knows or has reason to know that the substance has the capacity to cause impairment;
  • They are under the influence of a combination of any two or more of the elements named described above;
  • Their alcohol concentration at the time, or as measured within two hours of the time, of driving, operating, or being in physical control of the motor vehicle is 0.08 or more or 0.04 or more if they were operating a commercial motor vehicle; or
  • Their body contains any amount of a controlled substance listed in Schedule I or II, or its metabolite, other than marijuana or tetrahydrocannabinols.

“Under the Influence of Alcohol” v. BAC of 0.08 or Higher

Understandably, when most people think of DWI or DUI, they think of driving under the influence of alcohol. What can be confusing is that while the law considers it DWI to drive with a BAC of 0.08 or higher, it is also a DWI offense to drive “under the influence of alcohol.” This means that you can be arrested for and convicted of DWI even if your BAC is well below the legal limit. 

Minnesota’s appellate courts have concluded that a person is “under the influence” when they do not “possess that clearness of intellect and control of himself that he otherwise would have.” Regardless of BAC, all the state must prove is that “the driver had drunk enough alcohol so that the driver’s ability or capacity to drive was impaired in some way or to some degree.”

Marijuana and Other Controlled Substances

Your mind can be clear as day, but if you have even the slightest amount of a Schedule I or II controlled substance like cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin in your system, you can be convicted of DWI. 

Marijuana is expressly excluded from the “zero tolerance” standard that applies to other substances that remain illegal at the federal level. In order to obtain a DWI based on marijuana, prosecutors must prove that the driver was actually impaired, that is, “under the influence of a controlled substance.”

An officer who pulls over a driver because of driving behaviors that may indicate impairment (e.g., swerving between lanes, speeding, reckless driving) may ask you to perform field sobriety tests (FSTs) to evaluate your alleged impairment. But these tests are notoriously unreliable, especially as they relate to THC, and you are under no legal obligation to perform them. With the advent of legal cannabis in the state, Minnesota is ramping up the training and deployment of drug recognition evaluators (DRE) who are trained to identify signs of drug-related impairment through more intensive exams around vital signs, pupil dilation, and other body cues. 

If police do arrest you, they will ask you to submit a urine or blood sample, and refusal to do so will have consequences, including license suspension.

But even if the results of those tests reveal levels of THC in your system, proving that you were impaired because of it can be a tall order for prosecutors. But a combination of a DREs observations and conclusions and the results of blood and urine testing can increase the odds of a conviction.

No matter the substance involved, all individuals charged with DWI in Minnesota have rights and defenses. Even in cases where the evidence against you seems insurmountable, a skilled DWI defense attorney can challenge the reliability and admissibility of that evidence, attack the credibility of witnesses, and assert that the police made any number of mistakes during and after your traffic stop that could result in the dismissal of the charges.

At F. Clayton Tyler, P.A., our proven track record, personal attention, and straightforward approach will ensure the best possible outcome for your case. Please contact us today to arrange for your free, confidential initial consultation