Banner-Evaluation of Minnesota's High-BAC Law

3. Evaluation of Minnesota's High-BAC Law

High-BAC Statute

The following description of Minnesota’s DWI laws is based on interviews with DWI experts and on a review of NHTSA’s annual Digest of State Alcohol Highway Safety Related Legislation, Minnesota Statutes posted on the Minnesota state website, scientific papers and reports, and numerous publications from the Minnesota House Research Committee and the Department of Public Safety (DPS). Citations for these publications are provided in “References.”

Minnesota’s DWI penalties are characterized by substantial pre-conviction administrative license and vehicle sanctions. These sanctions are imposed for “implied consent” violations that involve either failing the alcohol test (BAC > .10) or refusing to take the test. Minnesota’s laws related to test refusals are among the strongest in the nation; a refusal is a criminal offense. Statutes define a “qualified prior impaired driving incident” as either a prior DWI conviction or a prior DWI-related loss of license. All persons who are convicted of a DWI offense or who plead guilty to a reduced offense must submit to an assessment for alcohol dependency.

Minnesota’s high-BAC law was enacted as part of an Omnibus DWI Bill implemented on January 1, 1998. Minnesota’s high-BAC threshold, .20, is relatively high. However, in other respects, the high-BAC statute was one of the strongest in the nation. As part of a restructuring of criminal penalties in the DWI Omnibus Bill, a standard first-time DWI offense was defined as a misdemeanor, a high-BAC first-time offense or a standard second DWI offense became a gross misdemeanor, and a high-BAC second offense or a standard third or subsequent DWI offense became an enhanced gross misdemeanor. In addition, either a prior DWI conviction or a prior DWI-related license revocation became relevant for penalty enhancement. The Omnibus DWI Bill also increased penalties for repeat offenses; plate impoundment and vehicle forfeiture sanctions were advanced to the second and third offense, respectively, and an administrative process was established for vehicle forfeiture (Cleary, Shapiro, 1997).

The following evaluation of Minnesota’s high-BAC law focuses primarily on high-BAC first-time offenses. As summarized in Table 1, enhanced penalties in 1998-2000 for a first-time offender with a high BAC included pre-conviction administrative sanctions and post-conviction court sanctions that were mandatory, substantial, and comparable to those for a standard repeat offense. The enhanced sanctions included the doubling of all license revocation and restricted license waiting periods. In addition, Minnesota became the only state to provide a pre-conviction administrative license plate impoundment for high-BAC first-time offenses. The 1998 statute also provided more severe penalties for high-BAC repeat offenders. For example, the law provided for administrative vehicle forfeiture for a high-BAC second or subsequent offense (Cleary, Shapiro, 1997).

Table 1

Enhanced Mandatory Minimum Penalties for High-BAC (BAC > .20)
First DWI Offense vs. Standard First DWI Offense
Minnesota 1998-2000

Type of Penalty

Standard Offense

High-BAC Offense
(Gross Misdemeanor)



30 days, or 8 hours community service for each day less than 30 served, or intensive probation program.  Judge may not apply mandatory minimum sentence under certain mitigating circumstances, but 48 consecutive hours jail or 80 hours community service must be served.



$900; court may impose additional $1,000 penalty

Administrative License Revocation

90 days; restricted license available after 15 days

180 days; restricted license available after 30 days

Post-Conviction License Revocation

30 days; restricted license available after 15 days

60 days; restricted license available after 30 days

Administrative License Plate Impoundment


Same as license revocation; special plates available with a restricted license

Required Chemical Use Assessment

Court may stay sentence except license revocation if offender submits to recommended treatment

Court must order person to submit to recommended treatment

Conditional Release from Pretrial Detention

Not applicable

Release requires maximum bail or alcohol abstention with daily electronic alcohol monitoring

The state’s DWI statutes were restructured, simplified, and strengthened in a recodification that took effect January 1, 2001. The new laws created a uniform “look back” period of 10 years for repeat offenses and three degrees of DWI offenses. The degree of the offense is based on the number of aggravating factors, which include having a BAC at or above .20, a qualified prior DWI incident within 10 years, and a child endangerment provision. The high-BAC provisions in the recodified laws are summarized in Appendix A. However, the following analyses are based on the high-BAC statutes in effect during the years covered by this study, 1998-2000 (Table 1).

During the study period, upon conviction of first-time offenders (including high-BAC first-time offenders), a shorter conviction-based license revocation period replaced the administrative revocation period that had been in effect. Thus, a guilty plea to the DWI charge was termed a “turnaround.” A high-BAC turnaround conviction also allowed the license plate to be restored more quickly. In 2001, the DWI laws were amended to close this “loophole” by prohibiting first-time offenders with a high BAC from receiving a shortened license revocation period upon conviction for DWI (Cleary, 2001).