DWI

Minnesota’s DWI laws are meant to curb drunk driving and other impaired driving as well as punish those who are found guilty of the offense. To that end, penalties associated with DWI in the state can be quite stiff and involve prison terms for the most serious offenses. For DWIs in which prison is not a possibility, which is the majority of DWIs, other consequences can still have a significant effect on defendants’ work and personal lives. These consequences include jail time, vehicle forfeiture, fines, court-ordered evaluations and treatment, electronic monitoring, loss of driving privileges, and license plate impoundment. A DWI conviction can even have an effect on one’s insurance and employment, if driving is an essential component of one’s employment.

Given this range of undesirable outcomes, anyone charged with DWI should consult with a criminal defense attorney to discuss fighting the case as well as mitigating the penalties. At Ringstrom Law, we provide excellent DWI defense services to ensure that our clients’ rights are protected and that they can make informed decisions about the criminal side of the case and the collateral consequences that go with it. With our help, depending on the nature and circumstances of your charges, your case can be taken to trial, a favorable resolution can be negotiated, or the charges can be dropped through pre-trial litigation. If you have been charged with a DWI in Moorhead, Detroit Lakes, or elsewhere in the region, get in touch with us today.

An Overview of Minnesota DWI Laws

Driving while impaired is criminalized throughout the United States, though it may be referred to by different terms (DUI, or “driving under the influence”; DWI as an acronym for “driving while intoxicated”) It is an offense that often calls for immediate arrest and later facing both criminal and administrative charges. The severity of an alleged DWI incident depends on several factors, including the driver’s level of intoxication and any prior DWI convictions the driver might have. 

Minnesota DWI laws apply to any person who is discovered operating a vehicle—or simply being in “actual physical control” of a vehicle by sitting in the driver’s seat with the keys nearby—while impaired by either alcohol or some type of drug. These laws also apply in the more specific situation of being discovered with a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or more within two hours of operating or being in control of a vehicle. Someone driving within Minnesota could also be found guilty of DWI if he or she had any amount of schedule I or II drugs in their body while operating a vehicle (with the exception of marijuana or THC). 

DWI laws in the state of Minnesota cut across all drivers, including commercial drivers (those with a CDL). In fact, the statutes are more stringent when it comes to commercial drivers. The threshold BAC for a commercial motor vehicle is 0.04% within two hours, not 0.08%. The policy rationale is that an impaired commercial driver will likely be more dangerous on the road, with a larger, potentially more destructive vehicle. 

BAC Limits in Minnesota

As mentioned, the state’s blood alcohol concentration limit is set at 0.08% for most motorists. Testing at the scene with a portable breath tester (PBT), as well as testing at a police station with a more sophisticated device, establish the amount of alcohol in a driver’s blood. Although a knowledgeable defense attorney may be able to raise a reasonable doubt as to a defendant’s BAC test results, often these tests are regarded as a reliable indicator that someone was indeed too intoxicated to drive, as established by law. 

A BAC of 0.16% or higher elevates a DWI offense to a higher level and is considered an “aggravating factor.” (Other aggravating factors are discussed below.) 

For drivers under the age of 21, the state of Minnesota has a zero-tolerance law, which aligns with Minnesota’s legal drinking age of 21. Minn Stat. 169A.33 provides that if a person age 20 or younger drives after drinking alcohol, with any evidence of that alcohol lingering in the body (or is discovered driving while in the process of drinking alcohol), the driver is guilty of a misdemeanor. Blowing a 0.03 on a PBT, for instance, would be evidence of this crime. The penalty may include a driver’s license suspension of 30 or 180 days, depending on whether the driver has prior convictions of underage drinking and driving. 

Other Aggravating Factors

In addition to a blood-alcohol level of 0.16% or higher, Minnesota law identifies two other aggravating factors for DWI offenses:

  • A child 15 or younger is present in the vehicle during the offense

(provided that the driver is more than three years older than the child)  

  • The driver has a previous DWI in the 10 years before the new DWI incident

Implied Consent Law and Test Refusal

Some drivers under investigation for DWI decide not to agree to testing because they are concerned the results will be used as evidence against them in a criminal court. While this may seem like a smart move, in Minnesota it is a criminal offense in itself.

The state of Minnesota, just like most states in the United States, has an Implied Consent law. The law means that any person operating a vehicle in the state has automatically consented to chemical testing to determine their blood-alcohol content. In other words, in exchange for the government-sanctioned privilege to drive on public roadways, drivers are deemed to have given such consent, even if they have never given explicit oral or written consent of this kind. Thus if any motorist refuses to submit to chemical testing, it will be considered a gross misdemeanor criminal offense at a minimum, and the consequences can include a driver’s license revocation of at least one year. 

Minnesota law does require officers, deputies, or troopers to obtain a warrant if they want the driver to provide a urine or blood sample for BAC testing. However, a warrant is not needed to get a breath sample. To be granted a warrant to require a urine or blood sample, the officer must prove that they have probable cause for arresting the motorist for DWI. If the officer has administered other preliminary tests, the results might help them obtain the warrant if there is a good reason to believe that the motorist was indeed operating under the influence.

There are defenses to charges of DWI test refusal; they are extremely difficult to litigate and it is crucial that you retain experienced counsel to raise such a defense.

Criminal Penalties for Minnesota DWI Conviction

A DWI charge in the state of Minnesota results in both administrative and criminal penalties. In a criminal court, the driver must be found guilty of DWI beyond a reasonable doubt for him or her to be formally convicted of the charge. To achieve a guilty verdict, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant was operating, in physical control of, or driving a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs. A judge will then impose criminal penalties.

If it is the defendant’s first DWI charge, with no aggravating factors, he or she is facing a misdemeanor conviction. The penalties for this might include jail time (maximum of 90 days) and/or a fine of up to $1,000. The case will increase to the gross misdemeanor level if any of the following are true:

  • The defendant refused to submit to DWI testing
  • The defendant had a BAC of 0.16% or more
  • The defendant was driving with a child younger than 16 in the car 

Penalties for gross misdemeanor DWI include up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $3,000.  

Minnesota designates DWIs as felonies when any of the following occur: 

  • The new DWI would be the offender’s fourth DWI conviction in 10 years
  • The offender has a previous felony DWI conviction
  • The offender has a previous conviction for criminal vehicular homicide or criminal vehicular injury in which alcohol or drugs were a factor

A felony DWI conviction is punishable by a maximum of seven years in prison, a fine of up to $14,000, or both.

Criminal convictions for DWI in Minnesota are classified as follows, with the gross misdemeanor level being split into two degrees, 2nd and 3rd: 

4th-degree DWI: Misdemeanor DWI that applies to first-time offenders

3rd-degree DWI: Gross misdemeanor DWI that applies to having one aggravating factor (discussed above) or test refusal (even first-time test refusals) 

2nd-degree DWI: Gross misdemeanor DWI that applies to having two aggravating factors or test refusal with one aggravating factor 

1st-degree DWI: Felony DWI, as described above

Note that all DWI penalties are subject to enhancement if the offense results in property damage, a vehicle accident, physical injuries, or death.  

Administrative Penalties for DWI in Minnesota

In addition to criminal penalties listed above, a DWI offender also faces administrative penalties in the state of Minnesota. Some defendants, including those whose work depends on their ability to drive, actually find these administrative penalties more burdensome and challenging to cope with than the criminal consequences. In the border city of Moorhead Minnesota, for example, someone charged with a Minnesota DWI might have a North Dakota driver’s license, which can complicate the aftermath of a DWI arrest. 

These are the three most common types of administrative penalties, each of which affects a driver's ability to legally operate a car and any other means of transportation:

Driver’s License Revocation 

Minnesota’s most common administrative penalty for DWI offenders is a revocation of driving privileges. A revocation typically begins immediately after a DWI arrest, although defendants are usually issued a seven-day temporary driver’s license to use before the revocation is put into effect. 

As with the criminal consequences, the length of revocation depends on factors like the nature of the current offense and the number of prior DWI convictions on someone’s record. At the short end of the spectrum, first-time offenders will lose their driving privileges for 90 days in a case with a BAC below 0.16% (180 days if the driver is younger than 21 years old). Entering a guilty plea reduces the revocation period to 30 days, provided the driver is 21 or older. Having a BAC of 0.16% or more increases the revocation period to one year, as does test refusal. 

When the DWI is a second offense within 10 years, the revocation period increases to one or two years, depending on aggravating factors. The longest revocation period is six years, which applies when the offender has five or more DWIs, whether in the past 10 years or in the offender’s lifetime. Commercial driver’s license holders face stiffer revocations than non-commercial drivers, with a first offense or test refusal resulting in a one-year revocation of CDL privileges, and a second offense producing CDL disqualification for life. 

Two options for driving during a revocation period are Minnesota’s limited license and Minnesota’s separate Ignition Interlock program. A limited license, which allows driving only for essential functions like work and childcare, is available narrowly for certain types of DWIs. Ignition Interlock is more broadly available and is often a defendant’s only option, apart from simply abstaining from driving for the entire revocation period.  

License Plate Impoundment 

Depending on the circumstances surrounding your case and your criminal history, a DWI offense may cause the police to physically impound your vehicle's license plates, or to issue a notice of impoundment requiring that you surrender the plates to a law enforcement agency. Plate impoundment is governed by Minn. Stat. 169A.60, which provides for the issuance of special registration plates (sometimes called “whiskey plates”) during the impoundment period.

It can be an unpleasant surprise for someone charged with a DWI to learn that that plate impoundment applies to all the motor vehicles they own or lease, whether jointly or alone, not just the vehicle involved in the DWI incident. This collateral consequence often ripples out to affect family members, such as a spouse, child, or parent who co-owns a vehicle. If you’ve received a plate impoundment notice from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, one thing to be aware of is that the state’s plate impoundment law prohibits giving or selling a co-owned vehicle to the other owner if that person is a household or family member. 

Vehicle Forfeiture

First and second-degree DWIs are nearly always accompanied by vehicle forfeiture proceedings. Upon receipt of a notice of seizure and forfeiture, a DWI defendant has 60 days to file a challenge to the forfeiture, which requires paperwork and a filing fee. Not every challenge can prevail and result in the return of a seized vehicle, so it is important to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney about this issue. There are some circumstances that do increase the likelihood of getting a vehicle back, including the innocent owner defense, although even that defense is not as straightforward as it might seem. Enrolling in the Ignition Interlock program can be another way to save a vehicle from government forfeiture.  

How to Challenge a Minnesota DWI Charge

Given the significant, life-changing penalties of a DWI conviction, it is worth working with a defense attorney who thoroughly understands Minnesota’s DWI laws. Cases that seem ironclad may in fact have defenses that will either persuade a prosecutor to dismiss or reduce charges; persuade a judge to suppress evidence, resulting in a dismissal; or persuade a jury to find the defendant not guilty. 

Unlawful Stops and Investigations

There are several ways in which officers or deputies can make mistakes or unlawfully bend the rules while arresting a DWI offender, which might be useful in your defense. Because the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable government searches, law enforcement officers need to have “reasonable, articulable suspicion” to stop a vehicle in Minnesota for the purpose of investigating a suspected DWI. Although seemingly trivial circumstances like improperly affixed license plates have been deemed reasonable suspicion, the validity of a stop should always be probed in a DWI case. So too should the expansion of a stop, meaning whether an officer is justified in questioning the driver and administering field sobriety tests. 

Improper Testing

There are various aspects of DWI testing that a defense attorney can explore for government error, including

  • Faulty administration of field sobriety tests (such as unclear instructions, and improper test scoring)
  • Inaccurate PBT or DataMaster equipment 
  • Broken chain of custody for blood or urine testing 

Post-driving Consumption

In relatively rare instances, a defense attorney can successfully cast doubt on the assertion that a driver was impaired during the act of driving by showing that the consumption of alcohol or a controlled substance occurred once the driver was no longer operating or in physical control of the vehicle.  

Find a DWI Defense Attorney Near Me

Everyone accused of DWI deserves a proper defense to ensure that they are not being unjustly sanctioned with criminal and administrative penalties, and to ensure that their constitutional rights have not been violated by the government in its zeal to crack down on impaired driving. The attorneys at Ringstrom Law are here to help you or your loved one both fight and mitigate the impact in the wake of DWI charges. We have achieved not guilty verdicts in DWI jury trials and have successfully suppressed evidence in many DWI cases. We will take you through the legal process and stand up for your rights, as well as negotiate with prosecutors and defend you in court. Get in touch with us today at 218-284-0484 to assess your case.

MN criminal defense attorneys Bruce Ringstrom Jr. & Bruce Ringstrom Sr.

Bruce Ringstrom Jr. & Bruce Ringstrom Sr.

Criminal Defense Attorneys in MN & ND

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  • Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
  • MSBA: Minnesota State Bar Association
  • National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
  • State Bar Association of North Dakota
  • Minnesota State Bar Association Criminal Law

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