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Legislature Ready to Crack Down on Drunk Driving
By Laura McCallum
February 8, 2001
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A bill toughening penalties for chronic drunk drivers has passed its first legislative hurdle. While most lawmakers support making repeat drunk driving a felony, the bill has stalled in previous years because of its price tag. But the bill's sponsor is predicting the bill will make it through the Legislature and be signed into law.

Follow Minnesota Public Radio's online coverage of the Legislature in our Session 2001 section.
THE HOUSE CRIME PREVENTION COMMITTEE unanimously passed the felony DWI bill, after hearing from county attorneys and the father of a drunk-driving victim. The lawmakers also heard from repeat drunk driver David Rosini. In 1993, Rosini killed Gary Reinhart while driving drunk in the Twin Cities, and he spent five years in the Stillwater prison. It was Rosini's third DWI. He says he didn't take the first two seriously.

"It was not enough for me to lose my drivers license; I drove anyway. It wasn't enough for me to be fined; I paid it. A few days in jail with other minor offenders didn't scare me," Rosini said.

But Rosini says he would have been scared to think that he could do time for repeat drunken driving.

"If this bill would have been in place when I was having my traffic violations, Gary Reinhart might still be alive today," he said. "It was a real wake-up call for me walking through the front door of Stillwater and hearing the slam of the cell doors."

The bill would make the fourth DWI in 10 years a felony, punishable by three to seven years in prison. Under current state law, a DWI is a misdemeanor with no possibility of state prison time, no matter how many times a person drives drunk. Lawmakers and Gov. Ventura have all said they want to keep chronic drunk drivers off the streets, but the sticking point has always been the cost.

Keith Carlson, executive director of the Metropolitan Inter County Association, says counties aren't opposed to the bill, but he says it will cost them at least $2 million to prosecute more drunk drivers.

"County attorneys will certainly have increased caseloads under this legislation. And also, due to the increased sanctions under this bill, more cases will go to trial, creating additional court costs," Carlson told lawmakers.

The bill's sponsor says he made changes to reduce the potential costs to counties. Rep. Rich Stanek, R-Minneapolis, a Minneapolis police officer, says he reduced the probation period from 10 years to five, and gave counties some discretion in sentencing offenders to work release and treatment programs. Stanek says felony DWI bill should finally pass this year.

"People told us to deal with repeat and chronic offenders. So maybe it took me a year to acclimate people to what it was that we were talking about, to get away some of the rhetoric of the counties and locals, saying, 'Geez, these costs are astronomical,' because costs are what scare the legislators away; they've got the willpower, the political willpower to pass this, what they didn't know was the costs," Stanek said.

Stanek says felony DWI will cost the state $8 million in the next two years. The money is not included in Gov. Ventura's budget, although Ventura does recommend more money for probation. A Ventura spokesman says the governor does not support Stanek's bill because of the cost.

Stanek remains optimistic that Ventura will sign a felony DWI bill if it gets to his desk. But that might take awhile; the bill must still pass three more House committees, and has yet to get a hearing in the Senate.