Many Minnesotans were shocked and repulsed to learn that Danny Lee Bettcher, a chronic alcoholic, recently racked up his 28th DWI while in possession of a valid driver’s license — despite 27 previous drunken-driving offenses and nearly a decade in and out of jail.
In some states, Bettcher’s license would have been permanently yanked long ago. But not in Minnesota. Here, the state dutifully reissues licenses again and again to chronic offenders who meet a standard that is not nearly high enough. Bettcher got his driving privileges restored while he was still in prison. He was no longer under state monitoring when he was picked up on Sept. 28, despite his lengthy record. Luckily, an alert bar patron recognized Bettcher, and a dedicated off-duty deputy ensured an arrest.
Driving is a privilege, not a right. Chronic offenders deserve to lose those privileges — permanently. The statistics on drunken driving in this state show that more must be done to crack down on those who are irresponsible enough to drink and drive. Start with the fact that 1 in every 7 Minnesota drivers has had a DWI. Law enforcement nabbed 25,000 drivers for drunken driving in 2015 — a rate of about 69 per day. Nearly 600 Minnesota drivers have four convictions — the fourth is a felony. Half that number have more than five convictions. Drunken driving crashes took 95 lives in 2015 and injured more than 2,000.
Some legislators are ready to crack down on chronic offenders, and they deserve support. Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, a member of the House Public Safety and Security Policy Committee, has said he’s ready to explore a lifetime ban. Rep. Dario Anselmo, R-Edina, said that after reading the Star Tribune’s story on Bettcher, he will introduce legislation that would revoke driving privileges for life after a fifth conviction, modeled after a law in Oregon.
No one should underestimate the crippling hold addiction has over many. There should be compassion for that struggle and help with treatment. But that generosity cannot extend to jeopardizing innocent lives that are ended or irrevocably changed because some choose to drink and drive. “Someone’s privilege does not override someone else’s right to safety and life,” Anselmo said. “The days of umpteen chances should be over in this state.”
Minnesota has long had an uneasy relationship with alcohol. It restricts the sale of liquor more than many states — not until this year did it permit Sunday sales. But for years it also was loath to get tough on drunken driving. Minnesota was the last state in the nation to adopt the federally mandated lower 0.08 blood alcohol standard in 2005, and then only because federal highway funds were at risk. To their credit, lawmakers have toughened laws since then, but a provision aimed at chronic offenders is overdue.
Oregon’s law contains an important provision — the right to petition for reinstatement, but only after 10 years and only if individuals can show they’ve completed treatment, stayed sober and proved they are no longer a threat to public safety.
That’s a reasonable standard that offers a powerful incentive to offenders while helping to safeguard potential victims. By the time Bettcher was stopped, he had already blown through a stop sign and was swerving along the highway — a menace with a license. That’s wrong.