Lake Minnetonka leaders are looking to revise lake rules after an Excelsior man arrested for boating while intoxicated had the charge tossed out, thanks to his argument that a boat lighting rule he was initially stopped for was stricter than state law.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed last week with an earlier District Court decision dismissing the charge — the second ruling at the state Court of Appeals in a month affecting the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District, which rarely has its rules challenged at the higher court.
Now, the group, which regulates use of the Twin Cities' most popular and largest lake, is reviewing and revising its rules.
"We need to make sure we go through and make sure people can't use it as a technicality," said Jay Green, a board director. "The burden is on us; this is probably a wake-up call."
On Wednesday night, the group's board of directors decided not to continue to fight the ruling by petitioning the state Supreme Court to review the decision. But the board also plans to review its code of rules and revise the lighting rule at the center of this latest dispute.
On all but two Minnesota lakes, boaters need only follow state boating laws. But on those two — Lake Minnetonka and White Bear Lake — there are local rules, such as for quiet water areas, that must also be followed. In 1967, the Legislature created the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District, followed in 1971 by the White Bear Lake Conservation District, to regulate use of those large metro lakes.
On Minnetonka, the west metro conservation district is publicly funded by a levy of property taxes in the 14 cities along the lake. The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office patrols the lake to enforce the conservation district's rules.
That's what happened on July 16, 2013, when a deputy with the Sheriff's Water Patrol Unit stopped James Nils Andersen, 57, of Excelsior, for violating a conservation district rule regarding the location of running lights. When the deputy stopped the boat, he noticed Andersen appeared intoxicated. He failed sobriety tests and a breath test showed an alcohol concentration of 0.17; he was arrested for boating while intoxicated.
However, Andersen sought to have that charge dismissed, arguing that the stop was unlawful because the conservation district's lighting regulation was more specific than federal and state law. The conservation district requires boats to be equipped with running lights in the "forward section of the watercraft," while state and federal laws just require lights be visible. The district argued that its rule was supplemental, not inconsistent with state and federal law, and that the Legislature empowered the agency to regulate the types of boats on Minnetonka.
A Hennepin County judge agreed with Andersen's attorneys and dismissed the charge. The state appealed, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed last week the District Court's decision.
"This policy is thwarted by a local ordinance that prohibits running lights on one lake that are permitted on other lakes," the Appeals Court wrote in an unpublished opinion. While the conservation district can regulate issues such as the speed of boats, standards for lights should be uniform across the state, it added.
Andersen's attorney, Marsh Halberg, hailed the opinion, saying, "It seemed like common sense."
"What if every town in Minnesota had different rules for headlights?" Halberg said Thursday. "People should expect consistency."
The conservation district's board was surprised and disappointed, said chair Dan Baasen, at the decision and that the intoxication charge was dismissed.
"Quite frankly, that's the bigger offense by far," Baasen said. "To have a boating while intoxicated [charge] which endangers people on the lake to be a minor thing and not enforceable … I think that's unfortunate. We're there to make the lake safe."
Halberg countered that the dismissed charge was "not the issue. The issue is, is that a valid stop?"
Last week's decision was the second legal loss at the higher court level for the group in the last month. In August, the state Court of Appeals also affirmed in an unpublished opinion the District Court's decision to reverse a grant of a multiple-dock license for a marina on Tanager Bay, which homeowners disputed.
The conservation district's board now will revise its ordinance concerning lights before the 2016 boating season, Baasen said.