Do DWI laws work?

One in seven Minnesotans has a drunk driving conviction. Are we any safer?

The laws continued to tighten in the 1970s. Driving with a concentration of .10 percent went from being evidence of intoxication to being outright illegal, a misdemeanor on its own.

Minnesota also pioneered a new strategy, becoming the first state to set up a parallel civil penalty alongside the criminal penalties: If you tested over the limit, the commissioner of public safety would revoke your license for 90 days. Eventually, this new administrative process was streamlined to the point that police could revoke your license on the spot, without having to first file paperwork with the commissioner, and before you ever saw the inside of a courtroom. At first you could delay the instant revocation by asking for a hearing to challenge it, but in 1982 that loophole was closed as well. You could still fight to get your license back in a judicial hearing, but while you were waiting you wouldn't be able to drive.

In 2004, the legal alcohol limit was dropped to .08 percent. And the movement to get stricter is far from over: Nearly every year, the Legislature considers a raft of new provisions to tighten the screws.

Jeff Sheridan, a DWI defense lawyer, says Minnesota’s drunk driving laws are out of control
Matthew F. Witchell
Jeff Sheridan, a DWI defense lawyer, says Minnesota’s drunk driving laws are out of control

THE DRIVING FORCE behind this escalating war on drunk drivers has been the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the national organization founded in 1980. Any group fighting for stiffer DWI penalties has an advantage out of the gate—who's going to stand up for going easy on drunk drivers?—but the Mothers carry a moral trump card. Their founder and much of their membership are mothers whose children have been killed by drunk drivers.

Leveraging this high ground, MADD successfully pushed to lower the blood alcohol limit to .08 percent in every state in the union. They fight for random roadblock checkpoints, higher beer taxes, and keeping the legal drinking age at 21.

In Minnesota, much of MADD's lobbying muscle has been flexed through the DWI Task Force, a group of law enforcement officials and activists that proposes new laws to combat drunk driving.

A 2006 report by the task force sums up the group's philosophy: "The most effective general deterrent action a state can take is to maintain a high level of DWI arrests."

Of course, with law enforcement budgets threadbare, there are hardly enough cops on the road to offer a credible challenge to all the state's drunk drivers. Chances are, if you try to make it home from the bar, you're not going to be stopped.

"Statistically, you have to drive about 100 times in this state to be arrested once for DWI," says Steve Simon, the law professor who founded the DWI Task Force. "That's why the penalty needs to be substantial. The consequences need to be so great that people think twice about driving even if they're unlikely to be caught."

But Jeffrey Sheridan, a DWI defense lawyer who attends the Task Force meetings, says the group's quest for arrests and stiff penalties has gotten out of control. Tall, with well-coifed white hair and blue eyes, Sheridan moves and talks with the self-assurance of a trial lawyer. As one of the state's top DWI defense attorneys, he has made a career charging clients top dollar to beat their drunk-driving raps.

"For many years, I was very cynical about it," Sheridan says. "I watched the penalties pile up and the laws become more byzantine, and every time the Legislature changed the law it was more work for me. This business has been very good to me."

But more recently, Sheridan has started to push back against MADD.

"I call them the Mad Mothers," Sheridan says. "They've got enormous political capital with no real counterweight. They just keep pushing laws through, ratcheting up the penalties, to the point where they've done an end-run around our Constitutional rights."

IF YOU WANT to understand why nearly one in seven Minnesotan drivers has a DWI, a good place to start is the Implied Consent law. Every year, Minnesota police revoke between 30,000 and 40,000 licenses by the side of the road, before the drivers can even talk to a lawyer, let alone plead their case to a judge or a jury of their peers. Even if the suspect can prove he wasn't intoxicated, he may still wind up with a DWI on his record.

You can challenge your license revocation, but unless you read the fine print legalese on the back of the form the police make you sign, you won't know that you only have 30 days to do it. And since the court dates for the criminal charges often aren't set until after that period, by the time many people are talking to a lawyer, it's already too late. Once the deadline has passed, you've got a DWI on your record, even if you beat the criminal charges.

"It's a crazy system," Sheridan says. "A DWI is a criminal offense, and in this country, when you're [charged with] a crime, you're supposed to get your day in court."

But what some people find even more troubling is that the two-track system of parallel criminal and civil penalties appears to be stacked against the poor and indigent. It's hard to find a lawyer in Minnesota who'll represent a DWI case for less than $500. Those who can't afford a lawyer for their criminal case get assigned a public defender. But public defenders, by law, can only represent their clients in criminal cases. Since the implied consent hearing is civil, if you can't afford a lawyer, you'll be going head-to-head with the state with no one to represent you. And implied consent hearings aren't the kind of thing you want to muddle through on your own.

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