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Poll: Minnesotans Favor Cracking Down on Drunk Driving
By Elizabeth Stawicki
February 16, 2001
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A new poll finds most Minnesotans support stiffer penalties for drunk drivers. The Minnesota Public Radio-St. Paul Pioneer Press poll finds more than half of respondents want to lower the legal blood alcohol level to .08. They also support raising the penalty for multiple DWIs to a felony.


Would you favor or oppose making a third conviction for drunken driving a felony offense in Minnesota?

State Men Women
Favor 80% 74% 86%
Oppose 13% 17% 9%
Undecided 7% 9% 5%


Source: Mason-Dixon Research
AS THE LAW STANDS NOW, the legal blood alcohol limit in Minnesota is .10. No matter how many DWIs a driver collects, unless he or she harms a person, the penalty never rises above a gross misdemeanor. A bill moving through the Legislature this session calls for making a fourth DWI conviction within 10 years a felony. But according to a poll of 625 Minnesota registered voters, 80 percent favor an even stricter measure. Eight out of 10 respondents like Liz from Mound support a felony charge on the third DWI offense.

"After three times I think we need to get people's attention. You're making a decision that takes the lives of innocent people into your hands. And after two times there's a big red flag there that should go up that says there's a problem here. After three times, dramatic action has to be taken," says Liz.

The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points, also asked whether the legal blood alcohol limit should drop to .08. A slim majority - 54 percent - say it should. Stephen Fenske of Byron opposes lowering the legal limit. He says .08 is too low to take into consideration people's different tolerances for alcohol.

"I do drink. My wife never drinks. Say she was out to have a strawberry daquiri. I would drive home even if I had six beers, because she just gets goofy. She cannot handle it," Fenske says.

Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Senate Crime Prevention Committee, says she's not surprised by the poll's results.

"It is no longer socially acceptable to drink and drive like it was 15, 20 years ago. I think now the question is, what are we doing about it. I think there's been a sea change," says Ranum.

But one defense attorney says the public's support is misplaced. Attorney Sam McCloud says he'll get richer if DWI laws get tougher, because he'll have more business. But from a taxpayer point of view, he says it's a mistake to spend more money to punish drunk drivers. He says the state needs to develop smarter ways of identifying drunk drivers who are likely to do it again.

"We've never solved an addiction by punishing somebody. The bottom line is, punishment is not the answer. We need to intervene in these people's lives and we need to get them real help, real significant, meaningful help. We need to do it early on before they get four or five DWIs," says McCloud.

Have you ever driven a motor vehicle after consuming enough alcoholic beverages to feel your judgment or physical reflexes were impaired?

State Men Women
Yes 46% 60% 32%
No 52% 37% 67%
Refused 2% 3% 1%


Source: Mason-Dixon Research
The cost of toughening the state's DWI laws range from $2 million to $8 million over the next two years. The money would go to hire more prosecutors and public defenders, and pay for more prison beds. That pricetag has discouraged lawmakers from supporting similiar bills in past sessions. Gov. Jesse Ventura doesn't fund it in his current budget, but he says that doesn't mean he has any sympathy for drunk drivers.

"Everybody wants you to crack down on it, and then all of a sudden they realize this is going to cost - how much? Maybe they ought to look at it and say, what will it cost you if it's your son or daughter, your mother or father or friend, who's killed by a drunk driver? How do you put a dollar value on that?" says Ventura.

The sponsor of the DWI felony bill, Minneapolis police officer and Rep. Rich Stanek, R-Maple Grove, says he's tried to reduce the potential costs to counties. He says the current bill reduces probation time from 10 to five years. He also says the revised bill gives judges more leeway in sentencing drunk drivers to treatment and work release programs, to avoid the higher costs of building more prison space.

Elizabeth Stawicki covers legal issues for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach her via e-mail at