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Minnesota is one of the worst states for repeat DWI offenses. One state rep wants to change that

Rep. Dario Anselmo wants to permanently revoke driver’s licenses from people with more than five offenses. But that might not do much to prevent impaired driving. 

Of nearly 633,000 Minnesota residents with impaired driving incidents on their records, about 367,000 have one offense.

In September, Danny Bettcher left the VFW in New York Mills intoxicated, got into his car and started driving. After he ran a stop sign and swerved on the highway, an officer pulled him over, according to media reports of charging documents. Refusing field sobriety tests, he told the officer “I am way over, take me to jail.”

It wasn’t Bettcher’s first time being stopped for driving while impaired: In fact, it was his 28th charge of driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol, better known as DWI. Yet at the time of his last run-in in September, he had a valid driver’s license.

One state lawmaker wants to crack down on driving privileges for repeat DWI offenders like Bettcher. State Rep. Dario Anselmo, R-Edina, says he's looking into proposing legislation when the Legislature reconvenes that would permanently revoke driver’s licenses from motorists with five DWIs on their record.

Repeat offenders

Minnesota has the highest DWI arrest recidivism rate among states surveyed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in a report released in 2014, with 41 percent of offenders arrested for a subsequent offense.

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Of nearly 633,000 Minnesota residents with impaired driving incidents on their records, about 367,000 have one offense. About 25,000 Minnesota residents have five or more, and one (possibly Bettcher, though the data don’t include names), at the time the numbers were run, had 26.

Number of DWIs on Minnesotans’ records, 2016
Source: Minnesota Department of Public Safety

Currently in Minnesota, there are penalties for repeat offenders, ranging from ignition interlock to vehicle forfeiture, license suspension and a requirement to use special license plates — known as whiskey plates because the plate numbers begin with W. But there is no provision in state law that calls for permanent license revocation: provided offenders do what’s required of them, which can include waiting periods, treatment or fines, they may have their licenses reinstated.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving gives Minnesota a rating of two out of five for efforts to fight drunken driving. It suggests passing laws that would require ignition interlock for all DWI offenders, legalizing sobriety checkpoints, making child endangerment a felony, and expediting warrants for drunk drivers who refuse sobriety tests as ways to increase its vigilance.

Anselmo said there were a couple of things that prompted him to look into legislation that would permanently revoke licenses: first, public response to reports of Bettcher's latest incident. Second was the recent death of a Wayzata police officer, killed by a motorist who was allegedly distracted and under the influence of drugs, in September in the west metro (the woman’s license had been revoked at the time of the incident).

DWI arrests in Minnesota, 2006-2015
Source: Minnesota Department of Public Safety

About 11 percent of Minnesotans have a drunk driving conviction on their records, according to the DWI Task Force, a group formed in 1982 that's made up of criminal justice, legal and health professionals and advocates, and seeks to educate the public on DWIs and push for legislative reform.

Another troubling statistic: For first-time offenders, the average blood-alcohol content was 0.148, according to the task force. For repeat offenders, it was 0.165. To legally drive in Minnesota, a person must be below 0.08. Men are more likely to have DWI offenses on their records than women.

Overall, drunk driving fatalities in Minnesota are down compared to a decade ago, according to the Department of Public Safety, as are DWI arrests. But Stephen Simon, a founder of the DWI Task Force and a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota School of Law, points out a couple of caveats to those numbers: First, people are less likely to die in crashes involving newer, safer cars, and second, the number of arrests doesn’t necessarily tell us the problem has gotten smaller: It could just be an indication that fewer are being arrested.

Drunk driving-related deaths in Minnesota, 2006-2015
Source: Minnesota Department of Public Safety

Changing culture

Declining fatalities aside, DWIs remain a big problem for Minnesota. But some doubt that cracking down on repeat offenders by suspending licenses is the best way to solve it.

“Repeat offenders have been looked at a lot, but the problem is the vast majority of alcohol-related traffic crashes are caused by first-timers,” Simon said.

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Furthermore, when it comes to repeat offenders, revoking licenses isn’t enough of a deterrent, Simon said. Many persistent drunk drivers will continue the behavior, driving without a license, which makes it impossible for them to get vehicle insurance, which can lead to more uninsured drunken drivers on the road.

So what would work?

Principally, research shows there are two ways to deter impaired driving, Simon said: the first is cultural change, which has slowly encouraged more people to use taxis and designated drivers.

“When I started practicing law in the late-’60s or early ‘70s, it was pretty much accepted that you’d drive after drinking,” he said. Juries were much more tolerant of drunken driving, too. That began to change in the 1980s, as public awareness of the issue increased.

The second is more enforcement: According to MADD, the average DWI arrestee drove drunk more than 80 times before his or her first arrest.

“The bottom line is, what deters people who have an abuse or chemical dependency problem … is the likelihood of arrest,” Simon said, citing focus group interviews with repeat offenders who explained how they made extra efforts not to be pulled over.

“They never go through a yellow light, they always park on the edge of town, not in the center ... they check every light on their car to make sure they aren’t out,” he said.

But enforcement costs money, as does treatment for alcohol abuse, another option that might help, Simon said.

Anselmo disagrees that license revocation won’t deter repeat offenders, citing states — including California, New York and Oregon — that have laws that permanently ban repeat DWI offenders from having driver’s licenses after a certain number of offenses. Anselmo said studying how the laws have worked in those states will be integral to drafting legislation in the coming months.

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“I don’t buy the argument that a serious punishment isn’t going to deter some,” he said. “It’s not going to deter all of them. The whole point is that we’re trying to radically or seriously reduce it.”