Among one of the most interesting DWI law-related topics is the history of Minnesota’s drunk driving laws.
Did you know that Minnesota was among the last states to lower their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) threshold to .08? The following timeline of DWI/DUI law in Minnesota provides an interesting glimpse into the state’s legislative evolution.
Factors Affecting BAC
Before delving into this history, understanding the effects of alcohol and BAC concentrations is necessary. Basically, the amount of alcohol consumed in order for someone’s BAC to reach .08 depends on several factors such as:
- Body weight
- Food consumption
- Drinking duration
- Individual metabolic rates
Generally, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a 170-pound male who consumed four drinks on an empty stomach in one hour would reach the .08 BAC. For a 137-pound woman, the same effect would occur with three drinks and, in fact, she may even have a higher BAC. Thus, many factors are involved in determining alcohol impairment, and this has resulted in confusion regarding where to draw the appropriate line.
With the advent of the automobile and increasing markets for the product in the early 1900s, government officials in their infinite wisdom deemed that drivers should not drive while intoxicated. Following production of the Model-T in 1908, Minnesota criminalized drunk driving in 1911. Because of the lack of any standard level of impairment to determine whether a motorist was, indeed, drunk, the arresting officer possessed sole discretion in determining whether someone was too drunk to drive.
In the 1930s, the American Medical Association determined that a person is likely alcohol-impaired if s/he had a BAC of .15. Of course, some people would be impaired with a lower level, as others may have a higher tolerance. Whereas Indiana adopted this .15 presumptive threshold in 1939, Minnesota did not follow suit until 1955.
Minnesota finally jumped on board with the national shift embracing a .15 BAC threshold and in 1955, the state’s DWI/DUI laws included:
- A BAC less than .05 would not be considered impaired
- BAC between .05 and .15 would indicate driver impairment; however, this evidence could be challenged
- A BAC greater than .15 would be prima facie evidence of intoxication and impairment; however, this, too, could be contested
Amidst increasingly sophisticated technology which permitted Minnesota to determine BAC limits in suspected drunk drivers, the state sought reevaluation of its current laws. Thus, in 1967, the state lowered the threshold BAC level to .10, and in 1971 it lowered the “per se” limit—criminalizing anyone from attempting to drive a motor vehicle with a BAC of .10 or more, regardless of any evidence of lack thereof of impairment.
1980s and 1990s
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Minnesota attempted to overhaul its drunk driving laws; however, many of these proposals failed. These proposals included:
- Lowering the per se limit to .05 (1989)
- Lowering the per se limit for juveniles to .02 (1993)
- Lowering the legal driving limit to .08 for all motorists (1995)
- Lowering the BAC threshold to .08 (1997); lowering the presumptive limit for juveniles to .04 also failed; however, this bill did increase penalties for repeat DWI/DUI offenders
- Lowering the BAC threshold to .08 (1998)
- Lowering the BAC threshold to .08 (1999)
- Lowering the BAC threshold to .08 (2001)
- Lowering the BAC threshold to .08 (2003)
Even amidst the federal government lowering the federal BAC threshold to .08 in 2000 as part of a transportation funding bill—and requiring states to adopt the same standard by 2004 or risk losing federal highway funding—Minnesota was still not ready to lower its own threshold. Whereas, 45 states lowered their standards to align with the federal limit by October 2003, Minnesota still refused to do so and, as a result, lost two percent of its federal funding in 2004. While staring at a four percent loss in 2005, the state eventually relented, and on 1 August 2005, Minnesota lowered its BAC threshold to .08.
Today, every state and Puerto Rico share the federal standard of .08.
In 2015, Minnesota lowered its BAC threshold for a gross misdemeanor DWI/DUI to .16 and increased penalties for repeat offenders, all in the hopes of reducing drunk driving in the state.