MN: Beyond the blotter: Efforts to reduce DWI offenses a multi-agency collaboration
By Patty Dexter
September 13, 2018
Deputies, officers and troopers from over 300 law enforcement agencies in Minnesota worked extra driving-while-impaired enforcement shifts between Aug. 17 and Sept. 2.
The effort is part of the state’s Toward Zero Deaths traffic-safety program that employs “an interdisciplinary approach to reduce traffic crashes, injuries and deaths on Minnesota roads,” according to the program’s website. The program’s partners include state and federal agencies, counties, hospitals, businesses and community organizations.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety shared a graphic in a Sept. 10 Twitter post showing some preliminary numbers of DWI arrests. There were 18,568 arrests year-to-date and 283 weekend arrests, according to the department.
“We want to keep the streets and the county roads safety for everyone to travel,” said Lt. George Pufahl of the Carver County Sheriff’s Office, which participates in the Toward Zero Deaths enforcement campaigns.
Statistics compiled over the last five years in the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension annual Uniform Crime Report indicate that the numbers of DWI offenses fluctuate from year to year. For example, the Carver County Sheriff’s Office reported 163 such offenses in 2013 while there were 192 offenses in 2017. The Eden Prairie Police Department’s reported offenses in 2013 were 273 while there were 237 in 2017.
On a side note, those DWI numbers in the BCA Uniform Crime Report are categorized under the title driving under the influence (DUI), which is used by the FBI for uniform crime reporting, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. DWI fits the definition of DUI, so those numbers are reported under the DUI category.
In Minnesota, DWI is a violation for driving under the influence of alcohol, controlled substances, an intoxicating substance that a person knows has the capacity to cause impairment or any combination of these three items. DWI is also a crime when a driver has an alcohol concentration over .08 at the time or within two hours of driving, or if the vehicle is a commercial motor vehicle — having an alcohol concentration of .04 or more at the time or within two hours of driving.
Pufahl said the majority of DWI arrests the Carver County Sheriff’s Office tend to be alcohol related, but he’s noticed a slight increase of people who are impaired by prescription pills, methamphetamines or heroin.
Sgt. Tom Lowery of the Eden Prairie Police Department said in the last three years, his department has seen an increase of people who are impaired by over-the-counter drugs, illicit drugs or other chemicals.
The Minnetonka Police Department also sees DWI offenses related to prescription drugs as well as illegal drugs. Some of the cases of impairment with prescription drugs aren’t always intentional, because everyone reacts to prescription medications differently, said Officer Trevor Johnson.
“There’s a concern, too, if you have a combination of two different medications, that can also affect you differently,” he said. “The problem is they’re still impaired. It doesn’t always matter if it was an intentional abuse or not.”
While the numbers and types of impairment may change from year to year, the commitment of law enforcement to try and prevent DWI offenses has not.
Toward Zero Deaths uses education, enforcement, emergency services, engineering and courts and legislation to meet its goal of reducing Minnesota traffic fatalities.
On the enforcement side, law enforcement agencies can get funding to conduct enhanced traffic enforcement through a Toward Zero Deaths grant program. This money pays for officers’ overtime to do specific enforcement for things such as DWI, Lowery said.
The Eden Prairie Police Department has participated in the program for over 10 years and each year, the department assigns officers for enhanced enforcement for over 20 weekends. The department also does around four extra weekends of enhanced enforcement in addition to the Toward Zero Death events, which are internally funded by the department, Lowery said.
“Part of the whole initiative is to provide high visibility. We want people to see the extra message board and the extra officers,” he said.
Lowery said the thought behind the high visibility is that if people on a sign that extra enforcement is going on or hear about it in a media campaign, their assumption might be that police are all over.
“We want people to change their behavior before they’re behind the wheel. We want people realize we’re out there,” he said.
The number of shifts the Minnetonka Police Department devotes to enhanced enforcement varies each year. The state determines the time frames for specialized enforcement based off of crash information, Johnson said.
“We put in an application, and we request a certain dollar amount. The state has a budget given through the federal government and that’s divided,” he said. “Our amount is based off our budget.”
Pufahl said the Sheriff’s Office participates in around 10 Toward Zero Death DWI enforcement campaigns a year. The Sheriff’s Office can also use Toward Zero Death funding to assign a deputy to focus on impaired driving enforcement during local community events where drinking will be involved. Those events sometimes coincide with the Toward Zero Death enforcement dates.
Last year the Minnetonka Police Department started a Safe Driving Class that’s open to any Minnetonka resident free of charge. It’s not a driver education class, but a course that talks about safe driving, Johnson said.
“You’re just trying to educate people on safe driving. We get into impaired driving distracted driving. We talk about move over law, texting and driving. We touch on lots of different topics,” he said.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving Minnesota is one of the partners involved with the Toward Zero Deaths program. Executive Director Art Morrow said victim impact panels are one of the organization’s main programs in Minnesota to target repeat DWI offenders.
“One death or injury is one too many and this is 100 percent preventable,” he said.
The speakers involved in these panels include people who have been injured, have had a family member injured or lost a loved one because of impaired driving or repeat DWI offenders who killed someone many years ago and have since turned their lives around. The panels have changed a lot of lives for participants who have a DWI conviction, according to Morrow.
DWI offenders are often required to attend a panel in their area as part of a plea deal. They’re about two hours long, and information about making better driving choices is shared.
“In any given year we have over 200 panels that happen all over the state. It’s all days of the week. It’s at community centers, churches, public libraries, public colleges – any place we can get a meeting space,” Morrow said.
Morrow said good things are happening in DWI courts that are held all over the state and they’re seeing some success with reducing recidivism.
DWI courts are “dedicated to changing the behavior of alcohol and other drug dependent offenders arrested for driving while impaired. The goal of DWI Court is to protect public safety by using the drug court model to address the root cause of impaired driving, alcohol and other drug problems, with the repeat offender as its primary target population,” according to Toward Zero Deaths’ website.
Morrow said MADD also supports the use of ignition interlocks as a behavior modification tool to reduce recidivism. MADD’s website defines ignition interlocks as “a device about the size of a cell phone that is wired into the ignition system of a vehicle.”
“A convicted drunk driver must blow into the device in order to start their vehicle. If they have a measurable amount of alcohol in their system, the vehicle will not start. It is a simple and economical way to make sure that offenders can drive to and from work, but that they can’t drive drunk,” MADD’s website states.
The Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety says first-time DWI offenders and repeat offenders who are arrested with an alcohol concentration of .16 or higher are required to use an ignition interlock or face not having their license for at least one year. People with three or more offenses have to use an ignition interlock for at least three to six years or they never regain their driving privileges.