COL Warning to drunken drivers

New law can result in prison term for repeat offenders

A new Minnesota law that took effect Thursday should be of special interest to 80,000 Minnesotans.

Under the law, anyone convicted of drunken driving four times or more in a 10-year period is subject to a prison sentence. The 80,000 potentially interested parties are Minnesota drivers who already have three or more drunken-driving convictions on their records.

In the past, a driver could be convicted of drunken driving any number of times and the maximum penalty was a year in the county jail and a fine. The tougher new law was passed because of the large number of fatalities caused by drunken drivers, many of them with multiple convictions on their records.

In 1999, the most recent year for which figures are available, 1,500 drivers with three drunken-driving convictions were arrested again for that offense, according to a report in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. Officials said if that number were arrested again under the new law, it could pose a serious crowding problem for the state's prisons, which already have 230 more inmates than officials projected last year.


An advisory panel consisting of judges, prison officials, prosecutors and experts on chemical dependency is expected to draw up guidelines for sentencing under the new law. Anyone sentenced will be sent to the St. Cloud prison for evaluation and then to the prison at Faribault, which has a work-release unit and a treatment program for chemical dependency.

The tougher sentencing law is long overdue. Sweden and other Scandinavian countries have drastically reduced the incidence of drunken driving through harsher laws and rigorous enforcement. Drivers in those countries have learned to take a taxi or use a sober, designated driver if they have had too much to drink. The accident rates have fallen as a result.

Too many innocent people have been killed as the result of someone else's drinking habit. The Legislature has taken the necessary action. Now it is up to Minnesota drivers to learn that they can't get behind the wheel if they have had too much to drink.

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