With Loophole Closed, Lighter DWI Punishments Gone
An oversight in a much-heralded law that inadvertently led to far lighter punishments for some drunken drivers than others has now been fixed, just in time for the Fourth of July holiday, a day state officials have labeled as the "deadliest day of the year."
Beginning Sunday, July 1, all drivers who register double the legal alcohol concentration limit, .16, or above on their first drunken driving offense must either have their license suspended for one year or install an ignition interlock device on their vehicle for the same period.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety says that was the original intent of lawmakers who passed the legislation back in 2010 making ignition interlock a larger part of state drunken driving statues.
But an oversight in the crafting of that legislation actually left a gap in the punishment, officials acknowledge: a first-time offender registering an alcohol concentration of .16 to .199 could plead guilty and get his or her driver's license back in just 30 days - not the one-year punishment envisioned when then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the bill into law in May 2010.
A change to the law was put into the 2012 Transportation Omnibus bill at DPS's behest and signed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
"Ignition interlock was an excellent tool," said Jean Ryan, the Impaired Driving Program coordinator at the state's Office of Traffic Safety, "(to) reduce impaired driving and save lives on the roadway."
Some defense attorneys, however, dispute the need for the change.
"I think the old law was better, because it gave people an incentive to come in after the fact, man up to what they did, take the conviction, and get their license back in 30 days," Marsh Halberg, an attorney at Halberg Criminal Defense, told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS in an interview.
Halberg's firm represented about a dozen defendants who, he says, quickly pleaded guilty before July 1 to take advantage of the lesser drunken driving sanctions.