A Minnesota court has steered motorists right when it comes to turning left.
The state Court of Appeals has ruled that drivers should be free to choose either of two lanes while turning left at an intersection without fear of being stopped and ticketed.
Kevin N. Birkland, 58, of Minnetonka, argued before the appellate court and won his contention that he legally entered the far right lane, in an effort to have scrubbed from his record a 90-day license revocation stemming from a traffic stop in September 2018 in Shorewood that resulted in a drunken driving citation.
The judges pointed out Tuesday that while the relevant statute requires the driver to complete the turn to the right of the centerline separating opposite directions of traffic, "this unambiguous provision is silent as to which lane to the right of the roadway the driver must enter."
"We got a good decision," said defense attorney Paul Ahern, who since 1991 has dedicated his entire practice to defending clients accused of drunken driving. "That revocation should come off his record" now that the case goes back to the lower court for reconsideration.
Ahern also was quick to point out that the ruling informally trumps the official Minnesota Driver's Manual, which "surprisingly says that you have to turn into the left lane. But that's not what the statute says."
On page 23, complete with a color diagram, the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) manual instructs motorists making a left turn to "complete the turn in the first lane right of the centerline."
DPS spokesman Doug Neville said Wednesday that his agency is reviewing the court's ruling and otherwise declined to elaborate on how it might impact the manual's instruction.
Chris Claeson, driving school manager for AAA Minneapolis, said state license examiners pay attention to how drivers make turns.
"For now, turning into the nearest available lane is best practice," he said. "That is how we will continue to teach it."
Tony Ryan, who owns Midway Driving School in St. Paul, said logic demands that turning motorists not stray to the outermost lane.
"It seems like a solution in search of a problem," said Ryan, who also has taught driver's education for 30 years and has no intention of altering his curriculum.
"You stay in your assigned lane," he said. "If courts let left turns be sloppy — what the rest of us would call a crap left turn — those turning right [coming from the other direction] had better watch out. It's nonsensical."
The court ruling received mixed reaction from a few drivers at the Department of Motor Vehicles Service Center in downtown Minneapolis.
Dan Biersdorf, who was waiting to renew his license plate tabs, said he agreed with the Appeals Court.
"You can go into either [lane] … as long as you are checking over your shoulder to make sure someone else isn't cutting you off or something."
But Melisa Rodriguez said she had reservations about the decision.
"What if there was someone that was in [the right lane] that was turning? He would push them out of the way. Then there would be an accident," she said. "I think you are supposed to stay in the same lane when you make the turn. That is how we are taught in driver's ed. … I hate it when people swing wide."
On Sept. 30, 2018, Birkland was heading south on Christmas Lake Road shortly after 10 p.m. and stopped at Hwy. 7 in the lone left-hand turn lane.
The South Minnetonka Police Department officer pulled her squad car behind Birkland and saw him turn left into the far right lane and not the left lane, the one closest to the centerline.
The officer said in a subsequent court hearing that she pulled Birkland over for his lane selection and not out of any concern that he was driving under the influence. Once stopped, Birkland was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and registered a blood alcohol content reading of 0.10% during a breath test at police headquarters.
In January 2019, the Hennepin County District Court accepted a plea deal from Birkland that saw his drunken-driving charge dropped in exchange for an admission of careless driving. However, the elapsed revocation would not be rescinded on paper when he took his argument to District Judge Daniel Moreno later that year.
Even so, the plea agreement could not erase for Birkland everything else that grew out of a stop that the appeals court said never should have happened: the inconvenience of being unable to drive for 90 days, the hundreds of dollars in court-ordered fines and the expense of hiring an attorney.
Ahern added that Tuesday's victory not only clarifies one aspect of driving for millions of motorists in Minnesota, but there are tangible and positive consequences for Birkland.
Once the revocation comes off Birkland's record, as Ahern anticipates will happen, his client should get back the $680 he paid the court to have his license reinstated and should not suffer financially when paying for car insurance.
"They can increase your rates," based strictly on a revocation and despite having the drunken driving charge dismissed, the attorney said.
Star Tribune staff writer Tim Harlow and University of Minnesota student Dylan Anderson contributed to this report.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482