There are always ample interesting DWI law-related topics in the news from new technology to laws to newsworthy cases. Whereas criminal law is often discussed, it is also important to understand that an individual who drives while impaired may face not only criminal charges and penalties but civil ones as well. While the state is responsible for filing criminal charges against the impaired driver for the criminal offense of DWI/DUI, the accident’s victim may also seek damages against the impaired motorist if that motorist caused the accident in question.

Criminal vs. Civil

In a criminal case, the alleged wrong is against society and, therefore, the state/city/county prosecutor brings charges against the defendant. In civil cases, the wronged party/victim files the case. Under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, a criminal defendant has the right to an attorney and, if s/he cannot afford one, the state must provide one. However, in a civil case, whereas the defendant is entitled to an attorney, s/he would have to pay for him/her. Further, criminal defendants enjoy other rights not afforded to civil defendants such as protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In criminal proceedings, the motorist can be charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced pursuant to state law. S/he may receive jail time, a prison sentence, required alcohol or drug treatment, counseling, loss of driving privileges, fines, license plate impoundment, and even vehicle forfeiture. In a civil lawsuit, the victim may seek damages for medical bills, vehicle repair bills, lost wages, and other punitive and/or compensatory damages. If the accident was fatal, the victim’s survivors may also bring a wrongful death lawsuit against the perpetrator.

Another difference involves the evidentiary standards and burden of proof used in each type of case. Whereas criminal cases require the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred and that the defendant was responsible, in a civil case the plaintiff’s attorney need only prove the defendant’s liability and responsibility by a preponderance of the evidence. A preponderance of the evidence is a lower standard than beyond a reasonable doubt as the plaintiff need only demonstrate that there was more than a fifty (50) percent chance that the defendant was responsible for the accident.

Minnesota DWI Law

Minnesota has graduated types of DWIs each with different sanctions. These are:

  • Fourth-Degree DWI (a first offense) is a misdemeanor that is punishable by ninety (90) days in jail and a fine of $1,000
  • Third-Degree DWI (usually a second offense or a first one with a test refusal within ten years) is a gross misdemeanor that is punishable by up to one (1) year in jail and a fine of $3,000
  • Second-Degree DWI (usually a third offense or a second one with a test refusal or another aggravating factor within ten years) is also a gross misdemeanor with the same penalties as above
  • First-Degree DWI (also known as felony DWI; usually a fourth offense or second felony DWI within ten years) is punishable by up to seven (7) years’ in prison and a fine of up to $14,000

Additionally, criminal vehicular homicide—a fatal alcohol-related accident—carries a penalty of up to ten (10) years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

Administrative Penalties

Criminal charges also carry administrative penalties which are separate from any civil lawsuit. The state may automatically suspend or revoke a person’s driver’s license for ninety (90) days following a DWI conviction, even for a first offense. Also, as mentioned, offenders may have their license plates impounded and/or their vehicles forfeited. In some cases, individuals who have been subject to administrative penalties may request special limited licenses and/or plates provided the individual agrees to the installation and use of an ignition interlock device (IID) or other court imposed requirement.

Driving while intoxicated is a serious offense with serious penalties. Don’t do it.  However, if you unfortunately find yourself in such a situation, seek the representation of an experienced and well trained DWI attorney in order to provide you the best DWI defense of your case.