People who repeatedly drive drunk could lose their driver’s license after a fifth offense, under a measure state lawmakers hope will reduce the number of deadly crashes on Minnesota roads.
The state has one of the nation’s highest rates of repeat drunken driving offenses, according to a 2014 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But Rep. Dario Anselmo, R-Edina, said it was the outrageous story of Danny Lee Bettcher, of New York Mills, that inspired him to propose the measure. Bettcher was charged with his 28th drunken driving offense in October.
“Why should we be validating people’s rights like that to drive a car?” Anselmo said Thursday.
Minnesotans who drive drunk can currently face sanctions like jail time, fines, an ignition interlock device, license suspension and vehicle forfeiture. Anselmo’s proposal, which he said has bipartisan support, would build on those penalties.
But the license revocation he is proposing would not necessarily be permanent. After talking with people, he said he decided to include an option for someone to petition the court to restore their license 10 years after it was revoked.
“It will be pretty tough, but there is a little bit of hope at the very, very far end,” he said.
It is challenging to pick the number of offenses after which to take away a license, said Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, who supports the bill. Franke, a recovering addict who is 20 years sober, was arrested four times for driving intoxicated. He lost his license, but it was later restored.
Franke supports the clause allowing people to petition the court to reinstate their ability to drive. He said the state should not hinder the success of people who have turned their lives around.
Other states, such as California and Oregon, have enacted similar laws. They seem to be reducing offenses, Anselmo said, though data on the effectiveness is still coming in. Some states have taken the rule a step further by not including an opportunity for someone to ask the court for their license back.
Edina Police Lt. Dan Conboy said at a news conference Thursday with Anselmo and Franke that the legislation is a good start to address the drunken driving problem. However, he said it’s very common for police to encounter drivers who have a revoked license and are driving a friend’s or spouse’s car.
“We do run into repeat offenders. It’s frustrating. It’s sad because we know it’s a good chance they have some sort of addiction problem,” Conboy said. “We’d love for them to get the help they need. But at some point you’ve got to put public safety ahead of someone’s convenience to drive a car.”
The number of Minnesotans charged with driving while intoxicated has dropped in the past decade but is still about 25,000 people a year.
If the measure passes the Legislature this year, it would apply to violations committed on or after Aug. 1.
“We got to give it a try ... If this saves one life, it’s enough,” Anselmo said.