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Emergency Vehicles and the Burden of Proof

important reminder that the State must prove each and every element

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Recently, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a conviction for failure to yield to an emergency vehicle even though the police officer observed the driver fail to stop for an approaching ambulance with its emergency lights activated. Despite these apparently incriminating facts, the Court of Appeals ruled that the prosecutor failed to prove the State’s case beyond a reasonable doubt. Here’s how it happened.

We all know that the law requires drivers to yield to emergency vehicles. The Minnesota Driver’s Manual states:

“When an emergency vehicle, such as an ambulance, fire truck, or police car, displaying flashing red lights and sounding a siren or bell approaches your vehicle on a two-way road, you must pull to the right and stop. If you are traveling on a one-way road, you must pull to whichever side is nearest and stop. If you are within an intersection, proceed through it before stopping. Remain stopped until all emergency vehicles have passed. A law enforcement officer with probable cause to believe a driver has violated this law may arrest the driver within four hours of the violation.”

Drivers are not required to stop if an approaching emergency vehicle is separated from their lane of traffic by a physical barrier such as a fence, wall, or median strip.

During a court trial, the prosecutor established that the ambulance had its emergency lights activated and that the driver failed to stop. However, no evidence was offered to prove that the ambulance driver gave an “audible signal by siren,” which must be proven before a driver can be convicted for failure-to-yield under Minnesota Statutes section 169.20, subdivision 5(a). The district court nevertheless found the driver guilty of violating the statute.

In reversing the conviction, the Court of Appeals cited the failure-to-yield statute, which contains more detail than the requirement found in the Driver’s Manual:

“Upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle equipped with at least one lighted lamp exhibiting red light visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of 500 feet to the front of the vehicle and, except as otherwise provided in paragraph (b), when the driver is giving audible signal by siren, the driver of each other vehicle shall yield the right-of-way and shall immediately drive to a position parallel to and as close as possible to the right-hand edge or curb of the highway clear of any intersection, and shall stop and remain in this position until the authorized emergency vehicle has passed, except when otherwise directed by a police officer. The driver of another vehicle on a one-way roadway shall drive to the closest edge of the curb and stop.”

[The exception in paragraph (b) occurs when an emergency vehicle is escorting an oversize or overweight vehicle or load in which case the emergency vehicle must activate a red light but is not required to sound an audible signal by siren.]

Although the prosecutor presented evidence that two other vehicles in the are had stopped for the ambulance, the Court of Appeals found that this fact did not establish, either directly or indirectly, that any audible siren was present at the time – a necessary element that must be proven before a driver can be convicted of failure-to-yield.

The Court of Appeals rejected the prosecutor’s argument that the conviction should stand because the driver neither told the officer at the scene nor testified at trial that no audible siren was activated.

The Court of Appeals correctly held that in all prosecutions, the burden of proof for each element necessary for a conviction always lies with the State. Drivers are never required to disprove an element that has not been established in the prosecutor’s case-in-chief.

This case serves as an important reminder that the State must prove each and every element against the accused beyond a reasonable doubt before a person can be lawfully convicted. This is true regardless of whether a defendant is challenging a minor traffic violation or facing a first-degree murder charge.

If you find yourself facing DWI or OWI charges and believe the stop of your vehicle was illegal, our seasoned lawyers can help. Attorneys are available 24-7 — Call us at 612-334-3342.

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