Plan puts brakes on penalties for DWI

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 27, 2009 - 11:30 PM

The author of a bill that has already drawn opposition says current law wrongly punishes before conviction.

Consequences would come more slowly to Minnesotans suspected of drunken driving under a proposal advancing in the Minnesota House.

Drivers stopped on suspicion of drunken driving would not have their licenses revoked until they were convicted of impaired driving under a bill authored by Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano.

Currently, drivers face revocation soon after their arrests and before they go to court. The revocations are a minimum 90 days for failing a sobriety test, and a minimum one year for refusing a test.

Under Emmer's proposal, drivers would be subject to revocations of at least 30 and 60 days for failing or refusing tests -- but only after they're convicted or plead guilty.

The proposal was denounced by Stephen Simon, a longtime supporter of the state's implied-consent law, which imposes the quick revocations. He said changing the law would hamper society's ability to reduce repeat drunken driving and accidents.

"If [it] was repealed, Minnesota's DWI law would lose much of its effectiveness," said Simon, head of the state DWI task force.

But supporters of the proposal say it's needed because pre-conviction revocations penalize drivers before proving they're guilty.

"He [Simon] objects to people actually being convicted before they are punished," said Jeffrey Sheridan, an Eagan defense attorney.

Sheridan said the current law, which allows revocations to begin seven days after an arrest, typically punishes drivers before they have their day in court.

"The suspension happens on the roadside," Sheridan said. "This is a revocation notice signed by no one other than a police officer."

The bill also would end the impoundment of license plates and forfeiture of vehicles before conviction.

Costs an issue

Aside from concerns about civil liberties, Sheridan and Emmer criticized revocation, impoundment and forfeiture before conviction as fostering a costly civil court bureaucracy.

Both said the current law requires separate court hearings for the civil revocation procedures and the criminal DWI case. State and local budget constraints have caused some courts to give drivers their licenses back rather than fight civil lawsuits over the revocations.

"We are trying DWI cases twice, for no good reason," Sheridan said. "There is a real budget crises and the courts are saying, 'Look, if you're going to cut our budget, one of the first things to go are these duplicative hearings in DWI cases.'"

Court may be avoided

The proposal would allow a first-time offender who paid a maximum $1,000 fine within 30 days to plead guilty to a petty misdemeanor instead of a misdemeanor and avoid going to court.

The proposal also specifies that a drunken-driving arrest that results in a conviction for careless driving would be punishable by a license revocation under the DWI law -- as many as 90 days for a first-time offender and 180 days for a repeater.

"We're not interested in making it easier for drunk drivers," Emmer said.

But Simon defends pre-conviction license revocations and forfeitures, saying research shows that they have more impact deterring people from drinking and driving than do revocations that become effective after a conviction.

Lynne Goughler, legislative director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Minnesota, agrees. "There are 40 states that have [administrative license revocation]," she said. "It is proven. It is immediate. It is swift."

The bill, Goughler said, represents "absolutely the wrong message to send to people.

"We will continue to fight it."

Simon is not swayed by the argument that the current law penalizes people who haven't been convicted.

"Driving is a privilege, it's not a right," he said. Noting that accused drunken drivers are a relatively high risk, he said, "It's necessary for the state to proceed quickly to limit their use of a license."

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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