What Constitutes DWI?

There are many ways to violate Minnesota’s DWI statutes. As we will see, it is not necessary to be drunk, or even to be driving, to find yourself charged with DWI.


Section 169A.20 is entitled “Driving While Impaired.” But the title is just a description. If you take a closer look at the statute, you will see that it is possible to violate Minnesota’s DWI law whether or not you are impaired.

Per Se Laws

Like most states, Minnesota makes it a crime to drive with an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more (0.04 or more if it is a commercial vehicle), whether or not you are feeling or demonstrating the effects of the alcohol. It is also a crime to drive while your body contains any amount of a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance or its metabolite (except THC), unless you used the substance according to the terms of a valid prescription.

Impairment Crimes

Minnesota also makes it a crime to drive while:

  • under the influence of alcohol;
  • under the influence of a controlled substance;
  • knowingly under the influence of a hazardous substance that affects the nervous system, brain or muscles so as to substantially impair the ability to drive or operate a motor vehicle; or
  • under the influence of two or more of the above.
A conviction for one of the “under the influence” crimes does require proof of impairment. Minnesota’s appellate courts have concluded that a person is under the influence when the person “does not possess that clearness of intellect and control of himself that he otherwise would have,” so the state must prove 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.”

Driving, Operating or in Physical Control

If you look carefully at Section 169A.20, you will see that it makes it a crime to “drive, operate, or be in physical control of any motor vehicle” while under the influence or over the limit. There are also subdivisions which apply to motorboats, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, off-highway motorcycles and off-road vehicles.

Of these three terms, “physical control” is the most broad. It has been interpreted as “being in a position to exercise dominion or control of the vehicle.” The Minnesota Court of Appeals has said that “a person is in physical control of a vehicle if he has the means to initiate any movement of that vehicle and he is in close proximity to the operating controls of the vehicle, and this is true whether the vehicle can be driving upon the highway at that point or not.”

Test Refusal

Minnesota, like some other states, also makes it a crime to refuse to submit to chemical testing. To make matters worse, the consequences of refusing to take a test can be more severe than the consequences of failing the test. However, the fate of Minnesota’s test refusal law is presently unclear. On April 20, 2016, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the Bernard case, which is challenging the constitutionality of charging a driver with a crime for refusing to take a breath test. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has concluded that it is not constitutional to charge a driver with a crime for refusing to take a blood or urine test, but those cases are being reviewed by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

If you are facing a criminal charge, you need professional, personal representation. Our team of attorneys will offer you Straight Talk and Honest Answers about your case.