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Minnesota DWI Laws

On Behalf of | Dec 20, 2019 | Criminal Defense

Each year many residents of and visitors to the beautiful lakes country of northern Minnesota including Beltrami, Becker, Clay, Clearwater, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Cass, Itasca, Otter Tail and Wadena counties will be affected by a DWI arrest. It is important to you to understand what the different DWI charges are in Minnesota and how to best deal with them. In every case, it is in your interest to retain experienced legal counsel.

First, you should know that the legal limit for alcohol concentration in the blood is .08 for most drivers and .04 for operators of commercial vehicles. That means that if you are pulled over and test over the limit within 2 hours of driving, you will probably be charged with DWI. However, you can also be charged if you are “under the influence” of alcohol or a controlled substance. This is considered the common-law theory.

Moreover, if you refuse to take a chemical test to determine the amount of alcohol in your system and the prosecution can prove that you were under the influence without reference to a test result, you would be eligible for an enhanced charge and penalty.

Criminal Penalties

As far as criminal penalties are concerned, if you are convicted of DWI for the first time and assuming the absence of any aggravating factor discussed below, the maximum penalty is 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, making the charge a misdemeanor (fourth degree).

If, however, there is an “aggravating factor,” i.e. you blow above a .16, have a prior DWI within the last ten years, or have a child under the age of 16 in the car who is three years younger than you or if you refuse the chemical test, it will probably be charged as a third degree DWI, which is a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

A second degree DWI will be charged if there is a test refusal plus one aggravating factor or if there are two aggravating factors. A second degree DWI is also a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to one year of jail and a $3,000 fine.

Finally, felony, or first degree DWI will be charged if this is your fourth incident within 10 years or following any previous felony DWI or criminal vehicular operation conviction.

Added to these ranges are certain “mandatory minimums” which must apply where certain preconditions exist. If this is your second DWI conviction in ten years, you must be sentenced to 30 days’ jail, with at least 48 hours in a jail with the balance to be served as 8 hours of community service per day less than 30 you served. If this is a third such conviction within 10 years, 90 days is the minimum, with 30 days to be served consecutively in a local jail. A fourth such conviction within 10 years will require 180 days jail, with at least 30 days to be served consecutively. A fifth such conviction within 10 years requires one year of incarceration with 60 days to be served consecutively.

Impact on Driver’s License, License Plates, and Forfeiture of your Vehicle

  • Driver’s License Revocation

Each DWI kind of DWI conviction subjects the offender to administrative penalties. If this is a first arrest DWI and you “blew” under a .16, upon conviction, your driver’s license would be suspended for 90 days or 180 days if you are under 21 pending prosecution. If you blew over a .16 or refused the test, a 1 year revocation period would apply. As expected the revocation periods increase with the number of convictions sustained within a ten-year period. It should be noted that in certain cases, the revocation period can be reduced to as little as 30 days for first-time offenders.

Many people wonder how they will be able to get their license back and drive during the pendency of the revocation period. First of all, it will ultimately depend on how your case is resolved. If your attorney is able to plea bargain your case to a lower level DWI, the revocation period will also be reduced, but never eliminated entirely. Of course, there are exceptions. In certain cases, your attorney may be able to obtain a complete dismissal of the charges or have the charges reduced to a non-DWI offense.

Assuming a conviction, most people are able to apply for a limited license or an ignition interlock device to regain the ability to drive. An ignition interlock device allows the driver full privileges assuming compliance with the program. This option can be somewhat costly.

Another alternative would be to apply for a limited license. There is a 15-day waiting period associated with the application, but once it is granted, the driver may drive for six days a week for certain reasons such as employment, abstinence treatment, or to get to school as the case may be.

If you do have questions about the impact of a conviction on your unique driver’s license situation, you should contact an experienced attorney.

  • “Whiskey” Plates

Certain DWI convictions will require license plate impoundment. Those would be violations that occur within 10 years of another impaired driving violation, where the driver “blew” .16 or more, where a child under 16 is present (unless the driver is less than 3 years older), or where he or she is driving on a cancelled license.

If one of those factors is in place, the arresting officer can remove the plates from the vehicle and issue a 7-day temporary permit. This is designed to fit hand-in-hand with the seven-day grace-period driver’s license a driver may get before any revocation period begins.

Once the plates are impounded, you may apply for specially coded “whiskey plates,” which will be imprinted with a W, another letter, and then four numbers. These plates must stay on any vehicle the offender drives for at least one year. The plates signify to law enforcement (and unfortunately anyone with knowledge of them) that the driver of the vehicle has been convicted of a non base-level DWI offense. This can lead to enhanced scrutiny by the police, but it cannot be the sole predicate for a stop.

  • Forfeiture of your Vehicle

Forfeiture is an extreme penalty. Any vehicle used in the commission of a “designated offense,” often meaning a third DWI in ten years, may be seized and is subject to forfeiture, meaning a permanent loss of the vehicle.

If the person driving the vehicle is not the owner, the true owner can prevent forfeiture if they can show they did not know of the unlawful use of the vehicle, or if they did know, that they took reasonable measures to prevent it. If the vehicle is jointly owned by an offender and another, however, the other person cannot avail themselves of this defense to forfeiture.


This has been a general overview of some of the law of DWI in Minnesota. If you or a loved one is facing charges, it is important to contact an attorney as soon as possible (especially if the person is still in jail) in order to secure the best possible outcome to the case. Thomason, Swanson, and Zahn provides DWI defense services in Becker, Beltrami, Cass, Clay, Clearwater, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Itasca, Otter Tail, and Wadena Counties in the lakes area of Northern and Northwestern Minnesota. We can provide a DWI attorney to assist in courthouses located in the towns of Detroit Lakes, Bemidji, Walker, Bagley, Brainerd, Park Rapids, Grand Rapids, Fergus Falls, and Wadena. Please do not hesitate to call 218-303-9549 should you have an inquiry.