A state DWI task force is proposing tougher penalties for Minnesota’s drunken drivers with hopes that they will encourage more offenders to install ignition interlock devices before getting back behind the wheel.

With less than a week before the kickoff of the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers are being asked to consider a litany of proposals from the Minnesota DWI Task Force aimed at curbing drunken driving. They include seizing the license plates of offenders in all drunken-driving cases — including first-time offenders — and lowering the blood alcohol concentration level required to impose stronger criminal penalties.

The task force hopes the strategy creates stronger incentives for offenders to install ignition interlock devices, a decision they say reduces the likelihood that a drunken driver will reoffend.

The breathalyzer-type devices, installed in a vehicle’s dashboard, require the driver to submit to a breath test before the vehicle can start.

They’re “just good science,” said Robert Speeter, a criminal defense attorney and task force member who was key in putting the devices to use in Minnesota.

Speeter said research shows the devices help offenders get their lives back on track. “You do what’s effective, and it’s more effective to let people live their lives safely, keep their jobs, drive to work, go to AA meetings, take the kids to soccer and do all the things that are positive,” he said.

Studies show offenders who opt to install ignition interlock are far less likely to be arrested for a repeat drunken-driving offense than those who simply choose to have their licenses suspended. Nevertheless, the devices have yet to be widely embraced by offenders.

Since 2011, 14,000 Minnesotans arrested for drunken driving have participated in the interlock program in exchange for having their driver’s license reinstated. By contrast, nearly 60,000 Minnesotans arrested for drunken driving chose to have their licenses suspended. Many of them continue to drive, however, even without the license.

One reason for the apparent reluctance by drivers to install interlock could be financial: The devices cost around $100 to put in, with an additional monthly fee of up to $100.

Still, rather than mandate the installation in all cases, the 29-member task force — made up of defense attorneys, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and other safe driving advocates — instead presented a plan that would encourage more offenders to choose the interlock option over having a license suspended.

Task Force Chair David Bernstein said that requiring ignition interlock for all offenders is impractical, in part because some don’t own cars or can’t afford the devices.

“We want to be realistic and hope this bill passes to encourage ignition interlock for more drivers as one successful way of reducing drunk driving,” Bernstein said.

‘Best-case scenario’

Jennifer Freeburg, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the organization initially advocated for Minnesota to become the 25th state to require ignition interlock for all drunken-driving offenders. But for now, “this is the best-case scenario to meet everybody’s needs,” she said.

Under state law, authorities may seize the license plates of repeat drunken drivers or first-time offenders with a blood alcohol concentration of .16 percent or more. Doing so essentially renders the vehicle legally undriveable.

The task force has proposed extending plate impoundment to all drunken drivers, with the only option for their return being the installation of ignition interlock.

The more interlock drivers on the road, the better, said Jon Cummings, founder of Minnesotans for Safe Driving.

“They’re absolutely the safest drivers out there,” Cummings said. “That’s why we want to make it easier to get them.”

Some of the task force’s recommendations have elicited concern, however, including the call to lower the blood alcohol level threshold — from .20 to .16 — for imposing stricter criminal penalties. While the task force said the recommendation is made in the interest of public safety, others say it’s heavy handed.

‘Creating more criminals’

“In first offenses, it’s more a public health matter, and I think creating more criminals is not the best approach,” Speeter said. “There has never been a study that shows a confrontational approach works.”

However, advocates for the changes say they would go a long way toward streamlining the state’s laws. The threshold for more strict administrative — not criminal — penalties is already a blood alcohol level of .16, which is twice the legal limit for driving.

Other task force recommendations call for making it easier for offenders to make partial payments on the $680 license reinstatement fee, and easing insurance requirements for drivers who choose to install the ignition device.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers are likely to consider the proposals, along with other potential reforms to the state’s drunken-driving laws. He has concerns about the expense and punitive consequences for first-time offenders.

“For most people, those are errors in judgment,” he said. “They’re certainly dangerous, but in most cases they’re only one-time errors. There are huge financial consequences and most people learn their lesson just by going through the process.”