A Kinder, Gentler DWI

You drink. You drive. You lose. But maybe not for long.

You drink. You drive. You lose. But maybe not for long.

Just as he starts to recount the messy details of his four drunken driving convictions, Steve, who is driving while talking on his cell phone, is interrupted by an alarm.

"Can you hold on a second?" he asks. "I gotta blow into my Breathalyzer."

Steve exhales, and a faint mechanical whir comes from the onboard Intoxalock, an ignition interlock device he rents from a Des Moines-based company for about $60 a month.

"I have to blow into the unit to start the vehicle. Then, randomly, four times every hour it will ask me to blow into it," he explains. "The other day, it asked me to do it three times in five minutes."

Steve, who requested that his last name not be used, says his troubles began in 1990, shortly after his discharge from the Navy. Over the next two years, he racked up three drunken driving arrests. The punishment escalated with each conviction, but that didn't matter much. Steve paid his fines, did his time, and went back to the bottle.

In January 1997, he was arrested again while driving home from a bar. This time, Steve says, he got serious about sobriety. Three years later, his driving privileges were restored, but with a catch: The Department of Public Safety issued him what is commonly referred to as a "B card"—a driver's license conditional upon not drinking a drop.

Then one hot summer day in 2002, Steve worked up a mean thirst on a construction crew. He consumed about a dozen nonalcoholic beers, he says. On his drive home, he was pulled over and subjected to a Breathalyzer, which—thanks to the trace amounts of alcohol in O'Doul's—registered a .025.

Citing the B card violation, the Department of Public Safety yanked his license. He wouldn't be allowed to reapply until September 2008—a stiff penalty for a suburban family man. Last year, his lawyer, Robert Speeter, challenged that ruling in court.

As a DWI specialist, Speeter knew that Minnesota has long had an ignition interlock law on the books. In a nutshell, the law allows an offender to get his license back sooner if he can establish his sobriety and has an ignition interlock system installed in his vehicle. Save for a short-lived pilot program in Anoka County, the law was never put into practice.

"Frankly, I think the Department of Public Safety has been dragging their feet on this," Speeter says. "It's unfortunate because I think the research is pretty dang convincing that interlock makes the roads safer for everyone."

A judge granted Speeter's request, making Steve the first—and so far only—person in the state to benefit from the device. But if proposed legislation at the Capitol becomes law, that won't remain the case for long. And that's just one of several against-the-grain measures that could make life easier for Minnesota's drunk drivers.

"This seems to be the year of let's-be-kind-to-DWI-offenders at the Legislature," notes Steve Simon, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the longtime chair of the state's DWI Task Force.


Leading the charge in this unlikely battle is state Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park). As a criminal defense attorney and former assistant attorney general, Latz has worked on both sides of the DWI issue over the years.

"I want to tinker with the system to make sure it works more fairly for everyone involved and improves public safety," he explains. "And I think that will happen if both my bills get passed."

Although all the details haven't been ironed out, Latz plans to introduce a bill that will grant judges the authority to expand the use of devices for repeat drunk drivers. It's a matter of common sense and "enlightened self-interest," Latz says, pointing to the fact that a second DWI offense typically costs drivers their license for six months, making it harder for them to continue working or attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. "With those additional stresses, it's even harder for them to become sober," says Latz.

Observers like Steve Simon think ignition interlock, which is now commonly used in other states, is unlikely to have much opposition in Minnesota. Indeed, Mothers Against Drunk Driving launched a campaign last year touting the benefits of the devices for first-time drunk drivers.

But Latz's other measure, a bill to allow convicted drunk drivers to pay their $690 license reinstatement fee in installments, faces considerably more controversy. Both the DWI Task Force and the Department of Public Safety have declared their opposition to it.

But Latz says he's not trying to make it easier for drunk drivers. Instead, he says it will make the roads safer for the rest of us. He argues that many offenders, unable to muster the necessary cash, simply opt to drive without a valid license—or insurance. Statistics bear out the claim. Last year, there were a record 41,000 DWI arrests in Minnesota, yet only 29,000 people shelled out reinstatement fees.

State Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul), an assistant St. Paul city attorney who is carrying Latz's bill in the house, estimates that he prosecutes 25 revocation cases for every DWI. For that reason, Lesch contends, taxpayers are best served by a system that makes it easier for DWI offenders to drive legally.

But what will likely be the most controversial DWI-related proposal comes from state Sen. Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen). While not aimed specifically at drunk drivers, Ortman's plan, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, would broadly expand the rights of people to have their criminal records sealed.

The bill is aimed at minimizing the barriers to employment and housing that come with the stigma of a criminal conviction, but critics like Simon worry that it will allow drunk drivers to expunge their records. If that happens, he speculates, "the insurance companies will raise every driver's rates in Minnesota" to compensate.

Whatever the plan's merits, ex-offenders like Steve think it's long overdue. After the last time he lost his license, Steve despaired. "I was thinking I was screwed. I thought my wife was going to leave me," he says. He struggled to hitch rides with co-workers, relatives, and friends, but was on the verge of breaking the law once again.

"I was about to start driving illegally, against the wishes of everyone in my family," he says. "For me, ignition interlock was a godsend. Now, the stress in my marriage is gone. I'm able to drive to work and I'm able to drive to my AA meeting. It's kind of like a 24-hour probation officer."