Minnesotans share the road with more than 100 licensed drivers who have at least 10 DWIs on their records, and a handful of motorists with nearly 20 drunken driving convictions.
Almost 1,500 drivers have six or more DWI convictions, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
The arrest last week of a Bloomington man with at least 13 DWI convictions highlighted the challenge for law enforcement officers as they try to police repeat drunken driving offenders. While some question whether the state’s drunken driving laws are strict enough, others warn that a more heavy-handed approach could hurt those who are trying to turn their lives around.
Deputy Dakota County Sheriff Joe Leko expressed frustration with repeat offenders, a group that includes a Farmington man who pleaded guilty last month to driving drunk more than a decade after a booze-fueled crash killed three brothers.
“The addiction can be so strong that the deterrent of jail is not enough to keep them off the streets,” Leko said. “If they’re caught 19 times, they’ve probably driven 10 times that amount — they just haven’t been caught.”
Being convicted of multiple DWIs doesn’t mean a driver loses his or her license for good. Minnesotans caught driving drunk can return to the road after meeting conditions of their sentences. Those requirements vary based on a variety of factors, including how many prior offenses are on their records or their level of intoxication. Even after four DWIs, offenders can have their licenses reinstated if they comply with treatment and ignition interlock restrictions.
MADD urges changes
Douglas J. McCready, 40, who was arrested Sept. 13 after leading authorities on a 13-mile freeway chase, was out on supervised release following a 2010 drunken driving conviction in Ramsey County. According to criminal charges filed Tuesday, McCready’s blood alcohol content was 0.24 — three times the legal limit.
The State Patrol said Friday that his truck did not have an ignition interlock device that would have prevented him from starting the car if his BAC was above 0.02.
Frank Harris, director of state government affairs for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), wants Minnesota to join the 25 other states that require the devices for all convicted drunken drivers and not just repeat offenders or drivers with BACs above 0.16.
“The only thing that person needs to do is to prove their sobriety when they start their vehicle and when their vehicle is in use,” Harris said. “It separates drinking from driving; it teaches sober driving behavior and if used correctly it can prevent drunken driving and save lives.”
MADD estimates that the devices cost between $70 to $150 to install and about $60 to 80 per month for “monitoring and calibration.”
Paul Ahern, a defense attorney based in Minnetonka, worries that a stricter approach to requiring the devices could ensnare people convicted of impaired driving while on prescription medication. Ahern also opposes stripping repeat offenders of their driving privileges, referencing a client he met who has nine DWIs on his record but has been sober for nearly 20 years.
“It’s hard to say someone’s hopeless,” he said. “The real scofflaws, Mr. 13 DWIs, are going to go out and do that anyway.”
Nearly one in seven of Minnesota’s 4 million licensed drivers has a drunken driving conviction, according to a 2014 Department of Public Safety report. The same report also found that statewide drunken driving arrests were at a 20-year low.
A courtroom solution?
There’s always hope for repeat offenders, Hennepin County Judge Kerry Meyer says.
Meyer has presided over the county’s DWI Court for more than two years. The alternative sentencing program was the state’s first when it began in 2006 and is now one of nine in Minnesota.
The courts deal with people on their third or fourth DWI, cases likely to produce a probation sentence. Offenders are subject to random visits by probation officers and are required to attend at least three sober support community groups each week. Meyer said the DWI Courts offer more long-term support than a traditional treatment program.
“We know people generally age out of criminal activity,” Meyer said. “That doesn’t always happen on the addiction side of it.”
A 2014 study by an Oregon research firm found that graduates of eight of Minnesota’s nine DWI Courts were less likely be arrested again, compared with drunken driving offenders who went through the traditional court process.
“When a criminal activity is borne out of addiction, whenever the person can get the addiction under control the criminal activity goes away,” Meyer said.