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Man in fatal crash had 4 DWI arrests

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PARK RAPIDS - The state of Minnesota once considered Robert McGrath such a chronic impaired driver, it issued him special license plates identifying his vehicle as one involved in prior DWI arrests.

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McGrath, 49, charged in the Jan. 21 fatal accident outside of Park Rapids, has at least four previous drunken driving arrests, not two as previously thought.

McGrath made an initial appearance Tuesday on two vehicular homicide charges stemming from the fatal highway accident that took the life of 53-year-old Dale McDougall of Hitterdal.

McGrath had just been released from Innovis Health Center in Fargo after undergoing surgery to implant a rod in his badly broken leg. He appeared in Hubbard County District Court. He remains in jail unable to post bond, set at $150,000 unconditional and $100,000 with conditions.

The Jan. 21 accident between Park Rapids and Nevis on Highway 34 occurred when authorities said McGrath veered across the centerline and struck McDougall's pickup in the opposing lane of traffic.

Two of the criminal charges assert McGrath was under the influence at the time.

According to the criminal complaint, State Patrol trooper Dion Pederson observed that "McGrath's speech was slurred and his face was flushed. Trooper Pederson asked McGrath if he had drank alcohol prior to the crash and McGrath admitted he had.

"When the Trooper asked McGrath how much he had to drink, McGrath responded, 'More than I should have,'" the complaint stated.

McGrath faces two counts of Criminal Vehicular Homicide and Injury. One count states he was driving with an alcohol content of .08 percent or higher.

He also faces a charge of Second Degree Driving While Intoxicated.

The criminal complaint indicates McGrath has two prior alcohol-related convictions in the last 10 years: a DWI in 2001 and an Implied Consent charge in 2003.

McGrath was also convicted of DWI in 1992.

The 2003 Implied Consent conviction doesn't tell the whole story. McGrath, according to Hubbard County court records, was actually arrested for DWI.

At the time he was driving a vehicle with "whiskey plates" on it. Whiskey plates are issued to signify that the vehicle was used in an alcohol-related violation. That includes a prior DWI, driving with a blood-alcohol content above .20 percent or incurring a DWI with a child in the vehicle. The plates all begin with the letter "W" and have since been known as whiskey plates.

They were initiated to deter repeat drunken drivers by publicly stigmatizing them. The plates are silver-colored with blue lettering.

McGrath benefited from a Minnesota Supreme Court case handed down that very year, in which the court ruled that officers could not stop a vehicle simply because it had whiskey plates on it. The ruling struck down a state statute allowing such traffic stops.

The court, in ruling the statute unconstitutional, said there must be a "reasonable articulable suspicion" of impairment to pull a driver over, regardless of how minor. Any traffic infraction constitutes such suspicion, courts have ruled, even a driver making a wide turn around a corner.

So McGrath's DWI was dismissed because he was allegedly pulled over solely for having the plates on his vehicle. However, the administrative portion of his case, the Implied Consent, remained. That allowed Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne to use it as an aggravating factor in the vehicular homicide case. Dearstyne will not comment on the case while it is pending.

McGrath has also been arrested for DWI in South Dakota, court records indicate. It is unclear what year that arrest occurred in.

McGrath currently is in the Hubbard County Correctional Center. The conditions under the $100,000 bond, if he is released under the lower amount, are that he be law-abiding, refrain from alcohol use or entering liquor establishments, submit to random alcohol testing and wear an electronic monitoring device.

The Criminal Vehicular Homicide charges carry a maximum of 10 years in prison and/or a $20,000 fine upon conviction. The DWI charge is punishable by a maximum of one year in prison and/or a $3,000 fine.

McGrath's next court appearance is set for Feb. 9. He will be appointed a public defender to represent him.

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