Are Minnesota DUI laws too lax?

A man with a history of drunk driving, who was caught driving drunk in Newport over the long weekend, will not be charged with felony drunk driving.

Paul Garay, 55, is going to prison either way. He was ordered held on a parole violation and will have to serve 10 months remaining on a 90-month sentence, the Woodbury Bulletin reported.

This is one of the stories where the headlines lead to more outrage than the facts. It can sound like a lenient judge or lax drunk driving laws in Minnesota, but neither is true.

The law is funny like that.

Here’s what has to happen for a drunk driving conviction as a felony:


Minnesota criminal law defines the term felony to mean any crime for which incarceration of more than one year may be imposed. Under Minnesota’s felony DWI law, a person who commits first-degree DWI is guilty of a felony and may be sentenced to:

>>imprisonment for not more than seven years

(or more than seven years if the person has

other prior criminal history);

>> a fine of not more than $14,000;or both.

A person is guilty of first-degree DWI if the

person violates DWI law:

>> within ten years of three or more qualified

prior impaired driving incidents (defined as

prior convictions or license revocations for

separate impaired driving incidents); or

>> has previously been convicted of a felony

DWI crime; or

>> has previously been convicted of a felony level

crime of criminal vehicular homicide or injury (CVO) involving alcohol or

controlled substances.

You can read the law starting on page 7 here.

While the headlines note Garay’s 20 DWI arrests, only two have occurred in the last 10 years. He can still get a year in jail and $3,000 fine if he’s convicted of the charges, which would put him behind bars until late 2012. He’ll lose his license and probably the vehicle he was driving.

It may not be as tough as some would like, but the law in Minnesota is tougher than in some other states. In Montana, for example, there’s an effort underway to crack down on drunk driving by adopting language similar to Minnesota’s law.

Tinkering with the present Minnesota law, however, invites scenario-playing. Should the 10-year clause be removed? If so, that would lead to felony charges and prison time for someone who had two DUIs as, say, a 20 year old, and then had another as a 50-year old.

What’s the solution?

  • Al

    \\within ten years of three or more qualified

    prior impaired driving incidents

    So this doesn’t qualify as a ‘lax drunk driving law’? You threaten the lives of the public 3 times and only on the fourth time do we decide it is severe enough to be called a felony. Let’s imagine the crime is waving around a loaded gun in a crowded public space. Does the law seem lax now?

    \\It may not be as tough as some would like, but the law in Minnesota is tougher than in some other states.

    Great. We have the toughest of the patheic laws. We should be so proud.

    The reason I wasn’t killed by the repeat offense drunk driver who hit me was simply dumb luck. A little different angle and my head would have slammed into the pavement instead of just bumping it.

    Repeat drunk drivers have proven they are a danger to society and cannot be trusted when given a second chance. Yet we allow them to be part of society. This is a completely preventable crime that we need to take more seriously. Yes, I realize toughing the law might affect your drinking friends and relatives – mine too. But people need to take drunk driving more seriously and if it saves lives and prevents injuries it is worth it.

  • Bob Collins

    //You threaten the lives of the public 3 times and only on the fourth time do we decide it is severe enough to be called a felony. Let’s imagine the crime is waving around a loaded gun in a crowded public space. Does the law seem lax now?

    Well, you have to pick a number, first of all. How MANY times should a drunk driver be allowed to drive drunk before it’s a felony? You say it shouldn’t be four. Should it be three? Should it be two? Should all DWIs be felonies, thus sending everyone off to prison in a state that’s had the second-highest increase in imprisoned population this decade?

    Is a drunk driver driving at this moment a bigger threat to me than the drunk driver driving at this moment who’s been caught before?

    The headline in the Star Tribune on this story today — “time to take away the keys” — is incredibly disingenuous.

    Take away his keys? Repeat drunks lose their car. Keys aren’t very helpful for a car you don’t have.

    There’s difficulty in crafting legislation on this because the tendency is to react to one story. Laws that are adopted on the basis of one incident carry with it the law of unintended consequences.

    There’s certainly a conversation to be had on the issue, but before any law is changed, it should be adopted in a lynch-mob environment.

    My guess is the classification as a felony vs. a misdemeanor won’t deter many people from drunk driving. My guess is the solution is a breathalyzer installed in a drunk driver’s car that would be required for it to start would be the way to go.

    But I bet Sunday liquor sales will get passed before that provision does.

  • Al

    \\the tendency is to react to one story

    This would be the case if it were just one story – but it isn’t.

    \\How MANY times should a drunk driver be allowed to drive drunk before it’s a felony?

    Two. You blew your second chnace. We don’t trust you anymore. You do jail time and lose your license. There are many who chose to drive without a license or use someone else’s car. If you drive after losing your license, then it is long term jail time because you can’t be trusted in society. My guess is having to visit your loved ones through glass and Thanksgiving dinner with a dozen of your closest cell mates will have a big deterent effect and word will get around.

    The lax punishment for this is based on the fact that everyone knows people who commit the crime. It’s acceptable to want to lock up the sleazy, faceless drug dealer who is ruining the neighborhood. It isn’t so easy to think of Uncle Joe or Julie who sits in the next cube as criminals, even though that is what they are.

  • JackU

    One of the problems comparing this to “the sleazy drug dealer” is that those drugs are illegal to own or sell. Uncle Joe and Julie are doing something legal until they drive.

    If you want to go “Wild West” on this you could require people to “check their guns (keys) at the door”. Then they have to pass a breathalizer to get their keys back. Volunteers willing to spend nights in the key booth at variuos bars could be trained to cut down the costs.

    What do you say Al, can we sign you up?

  • Al

    I guess I don’t see this as ‘going wild west’. If you want to pay for something like a breathalyzer test then charge a user fee on the drinks and hire someone. Of course that doesn’t stop those who drink at home. I’d skip the breathalyzers at the bar for now and actually do something about criminals we already know about, remembering that this about not being considered a felony until the 4th offense in 10 years.

    I’m in favor of personal responsibility. We are talking about a choice to drink and drive. Drunk drivers are every bit as much criminals as drug dealers the moment they turn the keys in the ignition, regardless of legal the drinking was before they got in the car. We just choose as a society to consider this a less serious crime. We have chosen to downplay this crime historically, which is how we got to the acceptance level we have now.

    And to further illustrate how widespread this is, not just reacting to one story, I just heard 2 drunk driving stories in a row in the last news update at the top of the hour.

  • Bob Collins

    Al, is that two over 10 years or two ever?

  • Kristi

    I find it interesting that not once has the word “treatment” been used in this post or in the comments.

    As a recovering alcoholic (ten years sober), I can tell you that consequences never entered my mind when I did anything under the influence, including driving. The alcoholic brain simply does not function that way.

    It is my understanding that Paul Garay had been sober for seven years, until his recent relapse. Perhaps if GOOD treatment weren’t so difficult to come by (even in Minnesota, the treatment capital of the country), he might have considered getting help before this became an issue again.

  • Bob Collins

    One of the reasons he stayed sober for so long was because he was in prison.

    Your comment is interesting in that a FELONY DUI requires a treatment program.

  • Al

    I am in favor of good treatment, and certainly that should be part of the solution from offense #1. But after a second offense, whenever the first was, it is time to take more action to protect the public. Yes you have a disease, but if your disease is going to cause you to endanger the lives of others again, then the same old treatment or punishment isn’t enough.

  • Kristi

    I’m a little bummed to disagree with Bob Collins because I (not so) secretly love you, but I think it’s kind of ignorant to make a statement like “One of the reasons he stayed sober for so long was because he was in prison.”

    From what I can find online, it looks like three of his seven years sober were spent in prison. No one can possibly presume to know that he would not have been able to stay sober for those years had he not been imprisoned. I’ve managed ten years without any jail time.

    Trust me, I don’t believe that this long history of dangerous behavior should be taken lightly but clearly “the same old treatment” (Al) isn’t working. Maybe it’s time for new, effective treatment. And prison isn’t treatment. Locking someone away doesn’t address the underlying cause of the behaviors.

  • Bob Collins

    //I’m a little bummed to disagree with Bob Collins because I (not so) secretly love you, but I think it’s kind of ignorant

    We can just be friends, then. (g)

  • Indiana Habitual Traffic Violator

    Firstly, I was a normal suburban white kid growing up, who went to a good high school and got academic honors at graduation. Then I began work towards an engineering degree at a BIG 10 college. I had many friends and a great social life while working hard to maintain my GPA. One weekend I drove myself and a few friends to a local party where we proceeded to drink socially. I had literally three beers and got pulled over for not signalling a right turn at a stop sign on a side street with no cars around. The cop didn’t even have his driving lights on. I blew a .08 and I was arrested for misdemeanor DUI when I was 19 years old. I plead guilty to one year probation and a one year license suspension. Then I was arrested 5 months later for DUI and again a month after that for DUI, all for the same reason, driving after a party. Both felonies. No accidents or anything, hardly even a moving violation.

    I have never been in a motor vehicle accident and the third time I wasn’t even in my car when I got busted for DUI.

    I have had to go through enormous mental stress and depression after serving 6 months in work release and a year on house arrest. Probation now for 6 years. I have also lost my license for 10 years. The money that I have given the system is now in the tens of thousands. Lawyer fees are in the tens of thousands.

    I took 2 years off from school due to my spiraling depression and lack of transportation.

    I am 25 years old now and have a fiancee. I went back to school and will be graduating in the next few months with a mechanical engineering degree. This should be a wonderful time in my life but I can’t help but worry about finding a job and my felony convictions.

    I feel that I have been wronged greatly by this system and that there is no hope of a normal life for me with all the opportunities that my parents came to this country to give me.

    I have never hurt anyone in my entire life. I have never stolen anything from anyone. Why am I being treated like the biggest criminal? Why will this follow me for the rest of my life? I am in my twenties and these are supposed to be the best years of my life, but I’m being squashed under uncle sam’s thumb.

    I will never be able to provide for my family because my degree will be worthless if I can’t get to work. I have a moped but most states require a license even for that. The states that don’t require a license still make you travel less than 25mph which is ridiculous.

    I dont condone drinking and driving and hope that people don’t lose their lives. However, people will die regardless of drinking or not. We just tend to blame the alcohol if it is present as a scapegoat for natural selection.

    THE LAWS NEED TO BE CHANGED!

  • MN DWI GUY

    FYI to all: MPR conducted a poll in 2002 in which 40+% of MN admitted to driving while intoxicated in their life times. A new SAMSHA poll last year found 23.5% of us drank and drove last year. The problem with DWI is that most ppl don’t view it as a crime unless you get caught. I have friends that admit to DWI on a weekly or monthly basis, something I never did, and I am the one with DWI’s and consequently in their eyes a drinking problem. Al, is probably in this group as it seems by the comment that 40% of MN population needs AA or CD x-ment. I think that with the large portion of the population admitting its wrong yet committing the crime when they deem it necessary that DWI laws need to be less punitive. I will never do it again as the consequences have destroyed my life. I am in much the same boat as “IN habitual offender” but in the eyes of MN CJS I am a demon. In fact the 2002 Felony DWI legislation puts Felony DWI, the sole level VII offense, above (read: worse than) all of these offenses: 2nd deg Aggravated Robbery, 2nd deg Assault, 1st deg Burglary, 2nd deg Crim Sex Cond, Discharge of Firearm at Transit Vehicle, Fleeing a peace officer resulting in great bodily harm….See the MSGL for further details. I think that presented with the facts a reasonable person is able to discern the difference.