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Minnesota stiffens penalties for mid-level DWIs

The penalties for driving sloppy drunk in Minnesota get substantially tougher in August, a change that could affect thousands of drivers each year. The Legislature this year lowered the threshold for a gross misdemeanor drunken- driving offense t...

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The penalties for driving sloppy drunk in Minnesota get substantially tougher in August, a change that could affect thousands of drivers each year.
The Legislature this year lowered the threshold for a gross misdemeanor drunken-
driving offense to a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.16 percent. That’s still twice the legal limit for misdemeanor DWIs, but it’s .04 percentage points lower than the previous trigger for seriously impaired driving violations.
Dropping the gross misdemeanor threshold by 4 percentage points may not seem like much. But a Star Tribune analysis found that it could result in nearly 3,000 more gross misdemeanor DWIs a year if the average numbers for the past few years hold - a 71 percent increase.
The change will expose those defendants to maximum one-year jail terms, up from 90 days under the misdemeanor standard. It would triple the current $1,000 maximum fine. And it would authorize stiffer bail, result in much higher auto insurance rates and more painful legal bills. Gross misdemeanor convictions also can mean stiffer penalties for subsequent DWIs.
One out of every seven licensed Minnesota drivers has at least one DWI. David Bernstein, chairman of the Minnesota DWI Task Force, said the lower threshold primarily will affect repeat offenders, because they have an average blood-alcohol concentration of 0.165.
Some lawyers who represent people charged with drunken driving say the lower threshold is too punitive. But supporters say the tougher law is worth it, because it will save lives.
Research shows that the likelihood of getting involved in an accident spikes above a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.15 percent, said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the chief sponsor of the legislation in the Senate. He said the threshold of 0.16 percent was used in the bill because it’s “twice the legal limit” for a misdemeanor DWI, which makes it easier to grasp.
“Hopefully, you’ll have fewer people take the serious chance of those extra few drinks,” Latz said.
The law got through the Legislature without a fiscal impact analysis, though it seems likely to drive up district court costs for counties.
In the past three years, an average of 5,024 people a year were charged in Minnesota for driving with blood-alcohol levels between 0.16 percent and 0.19 percent. Nearly 6 of 10 were first-offenders, according to the Department of Public Safety. Minnesota has the highest DWI recidivism rate in the nation, at more than 40 percent.
From 2011 through 2013, 77 people died in Minnesota and 42 others were injured in crashes involving drivers with blood-alcohol levels between 0.16 percent and 0.19 percent. An average of 99 people died each year in all alcohol-related accidents in Minnesota in those years, and an average of 2,440 were injured.
Alcohol-related traffic crashes in Minnesota cost an estimated $204 million in medical expenses, property damage and lost productivity in 2013.
The legislation also synchronizes criminal law with administrative penalties, in that they both will now escalate at the lower blood-alcohol standard.

Related Topics: CRIMEPOLICE
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