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Local DWI convictions high, state DWI incidents at all-time low

DWI chart

WORTHINGTON -- In 1911, driving while intoxicated became against the law in Minnesota. In 2008, more than 29,500 people were convicted in Minnesota of driving while impaired (DWI).

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) recently released an annual report called "Impaired Driving Facts." The report is based on numbers and statistics from 2008 as reported by law enforcement entities across the state.

Of the 35,794 people charged with DWI in 2008, at least 2,836 of them had been charged with DWI at least 3 times previously. In Minnesota, one out of every eight current drivers has at least one DWI on record.

"In 2008, Minnesota reached a significant milestone of 163 alcohol related traffic deaths, the lowest number of annual impaired-driving fatalities on record," the report states. "Despite the drop in alcohol-related deaths, alcohol-related crashes continue to account for more than one-third of all traffic fatalities."

This discouraging fact demonstrates that impaired driving remains a serious threat to the safety of all motorists on Minnesota roads."

In Judicial District 5, which includes Cottonwood, Jackson, Murray, Nobles, Pipestone, Rock Counties and nine others, DWI arrests went from 2,273 in 2007 to 2,069 in 2008. The conviction rate went from 86.1 percent to 90.3 percent.

The disparities between the number of arrests and the number of convictions are caused by several factors. The report states the data compiled reflects convictions received as of Nov. 1, 2009, which means the numbers may have increased after the cut-off date.

Someone arrested for DWI may not be convicted for that particular charge if he entered into a plea agreement, if imposition was stayed or if another, more serious charge was involved. For example, if John Doe was pulled over while driving because an officer noticed the vehicle weaving over the center line, was determined to be intoxicated, and then it was discovered Doe was transporting methamphetamines, a county attorney would likely concentrate more on a felony drug conviction.

According to Murray County Attorney Paul Malone, even if a person is tried and found guilty on several charges, a sentence for the most serious charge is handed down and the lesser charges can be dismissed.

In Nobles County, there were 175 DWI incidents in 2008, and 142 convictions. Of the 175 incidents, 136 of the arrests were of first-time violators. Nobles County Attorney Gordon Moore said many of the first-time offender cases do not go through his office unless a sentencing is involved. His office primarily works on the offenders who have been picked up for DWI more than once. Of the 39 arrests that involved an offender who had one previous violation, 38 of them were convicted.

Malone said his office works in a similar manner.

"(First-time violators) only get sent to me if they plead not guilty," he explained.

Murray County's conviction rate for people who violate DWI laws two or more times is 100 percent for both 2007 and 2008. In both years, they had 37 DWI incidents -- 23 were first-time violators, 18 of whom were convicted for DWI.

Nobles County had 136 first-time violators, with 104 convicted. Moore offered an additional reason for some of the disparity between the two figures -- outstanding warrants, particularly in misdemeanor cases.

"People are given tickets and disappear," he explained. "When you have a transitory're going to have more warrants."

When a DWI is sent to the attorneys, Malone said, the cards are pretty well stacked against the defendant.

"The police do a good job at that," he stated.

When someone goes to school to be POST certified and become a Minnesota law enforcement officer, an entire course of their training is dedicated to DWI enforcement.

"It is very in-depth to start with," explained Nobles County Deputy Lonnie Roloff. "And then we do DWI updates every year."

Also of note from the DPS -- in 2008 there were 455 traffic deaths in general in Minnesota, the lowest annual death count since 1945, with 72 motorcyclist deaths, the highest number since 1985.

Preliminary figures for 2009 show a total of 407 traffic deaths, but as additional reports are compiled, the number is expected to reach 420.