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Minnesota in the middle of the pack when it comes to drunk driving penalties

Minnesotans busted for boozing and driving can be thankful it didn't happen in Iowa, where licenses can get suspended for six months just for the arrest.

Minnesotans busted for boozing and driving can be thankful it didn't happen in Iowa, where licenses can get suspended for six months just for the arrest.

Gerry Miller represented a twentysomething man arrested for drunk driving. The client walked out of court a satisfied customer. His defense lawyer had whittled the charge down to little more than a traffic citation on his record.

That was Miller's first case ever. Thirty-seven years and 10,000-plus defendants later, his small Minneapolis law firm still specializes in DUI defense.    

"Wisconsin, for example, treats its [first-time offenses] as a civil matter. They're just more lenient on it than Minnesota," Miller tells City Pages. "But you get to a state like Illinois, they can be real difficult, especially in regards to its driver's license policy, what happens to your license when you get a DWI. If you compare Minnesota to other states, I'd say tougher in some areas, more lenient in others." 

That expert take holds true, according to a recent study, in which the 50 states and District of Columbia were ranked from strictest to most lenient on DUI. The WalletHub report, which included such factors as minimum jail times and fines, license suspensions, and increased car insurance premiums, shows Minnesota as the 29th most lenient place to get nabbed for those who booze and take the wheel.

Harsh is the fate here for first-time offenders blowing a .16, for instance.

It's a gross misdemeanor and in many counties, says Miller, "They'd actually make you do some jail. It might not be a lot, but some regardless.

"But if you blew a .15, you're not even in the category. So if you barely got over that edge, it toughens up a lot. Where Minnesota is tough on that is all of a sudden now the driver's license is revoked [at .16] for one year and you have to go on Minnesota Ignition Interlock. You actually have to install in your vehicle or you could just not drive."

But the northland can be more benevolent in other areas. Alaska, WalletHub's third strictest state, levies mandatory jail time for convictions, three days for the first, 20 for the second, as well as minimum fines, $1,500 and $3,000, respectively. Minnesota, in contrast, has no mandatory sentence or fine for first-time lawbreakers.

The severity of punishment has a lot to do with what Minnesota county the DUI occurs in, according to Miller.

"Hennepin can be far more lenient," he says. "There's so many more people with such different situations, whereas you go to Pine and Itasca counties, they're very strict on it because they want the money. Now, this is just my opinion, but I think they look at it as the judges want [the offender's] attention and they can do this by making it expensive, which they can do at the court's discretion."