Why do some cars in Minnesota have 'whiskey plates'?
Carrie Plamann's daughter and her family recently played license plate bingo on a road trip from Denver to Duluth, where Plamann lives. The game involves vying to be the first to spot plates from different states.
After her daughter's arrival, Plamann suggested awarding bonus points for spotting a "whiskey plate."
"She had no idea what I was talking about," Plamann said.
Plamann said she had only learned about the special license plates recently, despite having lived in Minnesota since the late 1970s. She contacted Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reader-driven community reporting project, to learn why the state issues them, who gets them and for how long.
These white license tags — known officially as special registration plates — always feature the letter "W" followed by a second letter and a series of numbers. Issued primarily to drivers convicted of driving drunk, they have taken on the nickname "whiskey plates" as whiskey represents the letter "W" in the NATO phonetic alphabet.
Minnesota is one of two states that under certain conditions require DWI offenders to surrender their traditional plates and replace them with whiskey plates — the other is Ohio. Georgia issues plates bearing a special series of numbers and letters in more limited circumstances following DWI offenses.
Under Minnesota law, courts are required to order drivers to display whiskey plates if their first DWI offense resulted from having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of at least 0.16% — twice the legal limit for driving. The special tags are also mandatory for drivers convicted of several DWIs within 10 years, DWI with a child under 16 in the vehicle, or refusing to take a BAC test within 10 years of a DWI conviction.
Special registration plates are not exclusively limited to DWI offenses, said Oliver Schuster, a spokesman with Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS). Courts can also order motorists caught driving with a driver's license that is revoked, suspended or canceled to display whiskey plates.
The state confiscates — or "impounds" — a driver's regular plates before special registration plates are issued. Plate impound laws in Minnesota have been around in some form since the 1950s, but the special plates debuted in the 1980s, Schuster said.
Whiskey plates are fairly uncommon. Minnesota has more than 5.6 million registered vehicles, according to 2020 data from the Federal Highway Administration. By comparison, there were just under 4,900 special registration plates assigned in Minnesota as of Oct. 1, DVS said. That compares with 11,189 issued in 2021 and 7,925 in 2022, according to DVS.
The plates allow drivers who retain a valid driver's license or limited driving privileges after a conviction the ability to get to work and school if their regular plates have been impounded. They also allow others who have not been convicted of a DWI to use the vehicle.
The plates also make it easier for law enforcement to identify motorists with a history of DWI convictions, said Stephen Simon, a former University of Minnesota law professor who helped push for the special plates in the 1980s. Simon was a leader of the Minnesota Criminal Justice System DWI Task Force.
A person with a previous DWI conviction has a four times greater chance of being involved in a subsequent fatal alcohol-related crash, Simon said.
Traffic researchers believe most nighttime vehicle crashes involve an intoxicated driver, Simon said. In rural areas, the odds of dying in an automobile crash is 500% greater than in an urban area due to fewer law enforcement personnel on the roads, he added.
"These statistics supported efforts to target and remove repeat DWI offenders from the road," Simon said. "Special plates are part of that process."
But whiskey plates can't be the only reason for police to make a traffic stop. The Minnesota Supreme Court in 2003 ruled it is unconstitutional for law enforcement to pull over a driver solely because they have special registration plates.
Anna Hall, an attorney with the Legal Rights Center, argues that whiskey plates give drivers a scarlet letter for their transgressions, and may not greatly improve public safety.
"I think the plates serve to criminalize/stigmatize certain communities and criminalize/stigmatize addiction," she wrote in an email. "I'm willing to bet that they make a negligible difference and that there are much less stigmatizing ways to safekeep the roads."
Drivers ordered to get special registration plates must pay $50 for the tags and display them for a minimum of one year from the date an impoundment order is given. When the impoundment period is up, drivers may apply for regular plates provided they hold a valid driver's license.
At one time, drivers had to buy whiskey plates for any vehicle they owned, leased or had registered in the their name. Under new rules that went into effect Aug. 1, special registration plates are now required only on the vehicle driven at the time of the infraction, DVS said.
Drivers also can avoid getting whiskey plates if they enroll in the Ignition Interlock Device Program (IIDP). Through the program, drivers can have a device installed on their vehicle that requires them to perform a breath test before starting the vehicle. The device prevents a vehicle from starting if it detects a certain alcohol concentration level after the driver blows into the tube.
Drivers in the IIDP have the option to pay an early plate reinstatement fee of $100 per vehicle and buy standard plates before the one year has lapsed.
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