Ministry of Silly Walks beware: A quirky gait is all police need to reasonably suspect someone getting into a vehicle is too drunk to drive — especially when the teetering stroll takes place at 1:30 a.m. in Mankato’s downtown entertainment district.
Rambling references to Monte Python’s Flying Circus and the movie “Hugo Pool” aside, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a ruling this week saying a woman’s awkward walk was enough for an experienced Mankato police officer to suspect she was intoxicated.
Johanna Leigh Bergland, 26, was walking toward downtown’s Cherry Street Parking Ramp in March 2010 when she caught the attention of Jason Bennett. He is a Mankato police officer who was on, quite literally in this case, foot patrol.
Later describing the woman as “floppy footed” to the point that she looked “really drunk,” Bennett said during a pre-trial hearing he became concerned when he heard a car door slam in the ramp. There was a good chance that Bergland was about to drive the car because there were few other people in the area, he said.
Bennett and another officer stopped a car that pulled out of the ramp at that point because the driver looked like the woman with a “very unusual gait.” Bergland was then arrested for driving while intoxicated, her second DWI offense in four years.
After District Court Judge Bradley Walker ruled against her request to dismiss the charge because police didn’t have enough cause to stop her, Bergland pleaded guilty to the charge in March 2010. But she reserved the right to appeal Walker’s ruling. Her attorney, Mark Betters, said the odd manner of walking, which Bennett even said was difficult to describe, was not enough to justify a stop.
“The bottom line is that there’s a lot of circumstances that go into a police officer making a decision to stop someone,” Betters said this week. “In my experience I felt it should take more than someone with a unique gait. That’s why we appealed. We thought the probable cause in this case was too weak to make the stop.”
The Court of Appeals disagreed. The court found that Walker also could consider Bennett’s experience as a police officer and the location of the incident in his ruling finding there was cause to stop Bergland. Bennett had been a police officer for more than a decade at the time.
“Bennett’s observation of (Bergland’s) manner of walking in a bar district area at 1:30 a.m. was sufficient to support a reasonable suspicion that (Bergland) was intoxicated and to justify the vehicle stop,” the ruling said.
Walker likely didn’t intend any puns when he issued a staggered sentence for Bergland on Monday, requiring her to serve three different 15-day jail sentences through 2013. It’s a common sentence for drivers with a second or third DWI.
Bergland was scheduled to start serving one of those sentences this week, according to court records