Banner-Evaluation of Minnesota's High-BAC Law

4. Discussion

Many in the highway safety community view a high-BAC sanctioning system as a promising approach for reducing recidivism among a group of impaired drivers identified to be at higher risk for recidivism and for crash involvement. As of January 1, 2002, thirty-one U.S. states have implemented high-BAC sanctioning systems, most within the past few years. These systems vary in their scope and complexity. However, in most states it is difficult to predict how many offenders would be affected by a high-BAC statute or to determine the effects of such a statute because there is scant information on BAC test results or case dispositions. Information is seldom readily available on what proportion of offenders refuse the test, the distribution of BACs, or how alcohol test results differ for first-time and repeat offenders. Information on offenders’ BAC results and case dispositions may be incomplete, especially for persons who are not convicted in court.

Minnesota’s high-BAC law, implemented on January 1, 1998, has a relatively high BAC threshold (> .20), but relatively strong mandatory sanctions. Most notably, the law imposes an administrative mandatory license plate impoundment and longer license revocations for high-BAC first-time offenders.

The availability of historical data on DWI offenses and recent data on offenders’ BAC results provided an opportunity to study the implementation and effects of Minnesota’s law. In 1998, the first year of the law, 16.9 percent of first-time DWI offenders and 21.0 percent of repeat offenders had a BAC at or above .20. The evaluation found that the great majority of these high-BAC offenders received more severe penalties than lower-BAC offenders after the law took effect. In 1998, of first-time offenders with BACs at or above .20, 85.6 percent received enhanced administrative and/or court sanctions rather than standard DWI sanctions, and therefore received more severe penalties. Furthermore, high-BAC first-time offenders were more likely than offenders with lower BACs to receive a court conviction in addition to an administrative sanction, and the majority of high-BAC offenders received both an enhanced administrative and an enhanced court disposition. In 1998, virtually all high-BAC repeat offenders (96.8 percent) received enhanced administrative sanctions and/or enhanced court DWI-related convictions. Thus, the law had the intended results of increasing the severity and certainty of sanctions for high-BAC offenders compared to lower-BAC offenders. Comparisons of case dispositions for total first-time and total repeat offenders before and after the high-BAC law indicated that the overall severity of case dispositions also increased.

The severity of dispositions for high-BAC offenders declined from 1998 to 1999 and to 2000. For example, 65.0 percent of high-BAC first-time offenders received both enhanced administrative and enhanced court sanctions in 1998, compared to 53.0 percent in 1999. If sustained over time, this likely would dilute the high-BAC law’s deterrent effects. A comparable decline in the severity of dispositions was especially acute among first-time offenders with “borderline” high BACs (.20-.22). A decline in the severity of dispositions was not identified for high-BAC repeat offenders.

Following the law’s implementation, the rate of alcohol test refusals experienced a small, but significant, decline among first-time offenders; the rate was essentially unchanged among repeat offenders. This was likely due to Minnesota’s strong laws pertaining to test refusals. Other states experiencing rising test refusal rates, with or without high-BAC sanctioning systems, may wish to consider Minnesota’s approach of criminalizing refusals.

Recidivism rates by BAC level could not be examined for the period prior to the law. This was a significant limitation of the study. However, first-time offenders arrested in 1998 (the first year of the High-BAC law) who had BACs of .20 or greater and, thus, were subject to the high-BAC enhanced penalties, had lower rates of recidivism than offenders who had BACs of .17-.19, who were not subject to the enhanced penalties. These differences were statistically significant. BACs of .17-.19, although lower than BAC of .20 and above, are also relatively “high” and considered indicative of a high-risk offender. In fact, in 14 of the 31 states with high-BAC systems, the high-BAC threshold is .15. In addition, several highway Safety organizations (e.g., MADD, National Transportation Safety Board) recommend that the high-BAC threshold be set at .15. In Minnesota, about half of DWI offenders would qualify for enhanced sanctions under a .15 threshold. However, at a lower threshold, enhanced sanctions might be less fully implemented if courts and prosecutors were reluctant to apply them more broadly. In some jurisdictions in some states, the courts may not apply mandatory statutory sanctions.

As with the offenders arrested in 1998, recidivism was lower among high-BAC first-time offenders arrested in 1999 than among offenders with BACs .17-.19. However, the difference was lower than in 1998 and not statistically significant. It is possible that the decline in the severity of sanctions in 1999 may have diluted the effects of the high-BAC law. However, it also is important to note that there may have been other intervening factors in the DWI system during the study period that differentially affected particular groups of DWI offenders. In addition, there may be ways in which offenders with BACs .17-.19 do not represent an appropriate comparison group, or differences between these two groups of offenders may have existed prior to the law. Nevertheless, although not conclusive, these findings are suggestive of an initial positive effect of a high-BAC sanctioning system on the rates of recidivism among the first-time offenders targeted by the law.

As part of a process evaluation of Minnesota’s high-BAC statutes, interviews were conducted with judges, prosecutors, enforcement personnel, driver licensing officials, researchers, and others. It was noted that the law is widely perceived as being effective in increasing the severity of dispositions for high-BAC offenders. It is believed that as a result of the law, judges and prosecutors have become more reluctant to allow a high-BAC offender to plead guilty to a non-DWI-related offense. However, it also was noted that some courts may choose not to impose the enhanced sanctions mandated by law. Many experts also expressed skepticism regarding the general and specific deterrent effects of the law.

When the law was first implemented, there were concerns that the high-BAC statutes had added substantial complexity to Minnesota’s already complex DWI laws. This was a problem not only for prosecutors and judges, but also for enforcement personnel, who must initiate the appropriate license and vehicle administrative actions based on the BAC, whether the offender has prior violations, and other factors. It is believed that the recodification of Minnesota’s impaired driving statutes has alleviated some of this complexity. The high-BAC statutes were strengthened in 2001. Most notably, high-BAC offenders are now ineligible for a shortened license revocation (and vehicle license impoundment) period upon conviction.

As the primary number of total DWI offenses (one measure of general deterrent effects) rose slightly from 32,625 in 1997, the year prior to the implementation of the high-BAC law, to 33,662 in 1998, 35,832 in 1999 and 35,737 in 2000.

In sum, high-BAC sanctioning systems are viewed as a promising approach for reducing recidivism among “hardcore” impaired drivers. Minnesota’s law appears to have had some success in increasing the severity of case dispositions for high-BAC offenders. There is also evidence suggestive of an initial effect on recidivism. These effects may in part be attributable to the high-BAC law’s reliance on strong administrative sanctions and strong laws for alcohol test refusals. However, the analyses also showed that the severity of case dispositions applied to high-BAC offenders, especially first-time offenders, declined somewhat over time. Furthermore, the initial positive effects of the high-BAC law on recidivism also appeared to decline over time. This suggests that in order to achieve a long-term deterrent effect from high-BAC sanctioning systems, the imposition of enhanced sanctions must be sustained over time.