DWI is a pervasive problem in Minnesota and around the country.
One in eight Minnesotans of driving age has been convicted at least once for drunken driving. According to data from the state patrol, there are about 35,000 arrests for DWI every year in Minnesota. This in a state with a total population of only 5 million.
A recurring theme for the media is to report on the arrest of drivers whose previous DWIs number in the teens. For example, on Christmas Eve last year, a man named Paul Garray lost control of his car on Highway 61/Interstate 494 in Newport. The state patrol arrested him after a breath test showed a blood alcohol content of twice the legal limit of 0.08.
The Star Trib dutifully reported that although Garray had as many as 19 previous DWIs on his record, the Newport city prosecutor could bring only bring only gross misdemeanor charges. Under Minnesota law, it takes four convictions in a ten-year period to make DWI punishable as a felony carrying a prison sentence of up to three years. Garray could not be charged with a felony because only two of his previous convictions had been in the last ten years.
Understandably, many people were not satisfied with this outcome. Mothers Against Drunk Driving called for more mandatory sentences that include the required use of ignition interlock devices. These devices force offenders to blow into them periodically, and the vehicle does not operate if the alcohol level is unacceptable.
County attorneys also weighed in. James Backstrom of Dakota County said there should be a lifetime limit, allowing DWI to be charged as a felony when the limit is reached regardless of how many occurred in the previous ten years. Doug Johnson of Washington County said there should be serious jail time even for first offenses.
Many of the rest of us have concerns about DWI laws, too. To the average citizen, the legal system’s inability to intervene effectively against chronic offenders is mystifying. Why is the problem so seemingly intractable?
Steve Simon, a University of Minnesota professor who directs the state’s drunken-driving task force, provides some context. For one thing, he points out, people who rack up multiple DWIs are usually chemically dependent. They also often have many other problems in addition to alcoholism.
So it’s not just a matter of an incomprehensible justice system. Drunk driving laws are, rather, a reflection of a complicated social reality in contemporary America. We cling to our freedom too tightly − and in the continuing carnage on the roads, this carries real and often deadly consequences..