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Is DWI a Felony or Misdemeanor Under Minnesota Law

In Minnesota, prosecutors could treat the charge of driving while impaired (DWI) as either a felony or a misdemeanor. The underlying law surrounding the offense is the same. If a driver operates or maintains control over a motor vehicle while impaired by drugs or alcohol, they are guilty of DWI. 

While the elements required to establish guilt are the same in every case, the potential penalties are not. As qualified DWI Defense lawyers in Minnesota, we can tell you that depending on the accused’s criminal history and the factors surrounding the arrest, the penalties could vary drastically. 

If you are facing charges of DWI in Minnesota, you need the guidance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Contact Minnesota DWI lawyers at Gerald Miller to schedule your initial consultation right away. 

Misdemeanor DWIs in Minneapolis MN

The vast majority of DWI arrests in Minnesota are treated as misdemeanors. In fact, most of these arrests involve first-time offenders with no prior convictions for DWI. There is no guarantee that a first-time offender will not face a felony charge under the right circumstances, though. 

Without the presence of any aggravating factors, the state will charge all first, second, and third DWI offenses as misdemeanors. While not a felony charge, a misdemeanor DWI conviction could still result in jail time and fines. These potential penalties increase in cases where the state charges a DWI as a gross misdemeanor. 

The state can upgrade a first or second DWI from a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor in cases where the driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.16 or above. The same is true if there was a child in the car at the time of the arrest. For a third offense, the state will automatically treat a DWI as a gross misdemeanor. 

For a basic first offense DWI with no aggravating factors, a conviction carries a maximum jail term of 90 days and a fine of no more than $1,000. When the charge is increased to a gross misdemeanor, the maximum jail term is extended to one year. Additionally, a gross misdemeanor carries a maximum fine of $3,000. While these penalties are steep, they do not compare to the consequences of a felony conviction. 

Felony DWIs in Minneapolis and Minnesota

Ask any well-practiced DWI Defense attorney, and that will confirm that felony DWI charges are reserved for individuals with prior drunken-driving convictions. There are different circumstances that can lead to a felony DWI charge. The first factor that can lead to a felony charge involves drivers who have been convicted of felony DWI before. Any person with a prior felony DWI conviction will be charged with a felony upon any additional DWI arrest. 

The second circumstance that can lead to a felony charge involves a driver with three prior misdemeanor DWI convictions. It is important to note that not every prior conviction will count. The state only considers convictions that occurred in the 10-year period prior to the most recent DWI arrest. This window of time is known as the lookback period. Misdemeanors that occurred more than 10 years ago will not count as priors, meaning a person with four prior DWIs from more than a decade earlier will face the same penalties as a first-time offender. 

The third example involves prior felony convictions other than DWI. For example, a person that has committed felony criminal vehicular homicide involving alcohol will face felony DWI charges in the future. This is true regardless if they have a prior DWI on their record or not. 

The penalties for a felony DWI are much higher than a misdemeanor. The maximum fine alone is 14 times greater than a first-time DWI. In addition to the steep fines, a conviction could also lead to 7 years in prison. 

There are other consequences for a felony DWI outside of jail time and fines. Upon conviction, a person could lose their civil rights including the right to own a gun or vote. Additionally, there are steep administrative penalties that will limit a person’s ability to drive a car for years to come. 

Reducing DWI Charges in Minneapolis and Minnesota

It is worth noting that the police and prosecutors often mischaracterize DWI offenses in Minnesota. Because of this fact, in some cases it is possible to push the prosecution to reduce a DWI charge from a felony to a gross misdemeanor or a gross misdemeanor to a standard misdemeanor. This outcome might not result in an acquittal, but it could drastically reduce the potential penalties you face.

Most of the time, the reduction in charges stems from a misunderstanding of the state’s look-back period. In some cases, a prosecutor might miscalculate and attempt to use a conviction that falls outside of the look-back period in order to increase the charges against you. Establishing these errors could lead to a reduction of your charges.

You cannot simply have the charges against you reduced on your own. In most cases, it is necessary for the prosecutor to agree to reduce the charges after your attorney makes your case. However, you are not out of options if the prosecution refuses to go along. This is because you can raise a defense at trial in an effort to reduce the charge you face.

In Minnesota, DWI trials are bifurcated. They are essentially two different proceedings, with a guilt phase and a sentencing phase. Your prior convictions are only relevant during the penalty phase. This means if you are ultimately convicted of DWI, you could reduce the severity of the offense by making a case during the penalty phase that you were overcharged.

DWI Defenses that Work With Both Felonies and Misdemeanors

Whether you are a first-time offender facing a DWI or you have multiple prior convictions, you could have a variety of defenses available to you. Thankfully, the bifurcated nature of a DWI trial means that every defense could be available in misdemeanor and felony cases alike. There are two common defenses used in DWI cases: challenging the stop and challenging the test results.

The attorneys of Gerald Miller have defended countless individuals on DWI charges. We understand what makes a strong defense, and we are prepared to help you build the best strategy possible for fighting back against these charges.

Challenging the “Stop” in Minneapolis and MN

One of the primary ways to challenge a DWI charge is by attacking the underlying police stop. The police do not have free reign to pull over any driver they want. Instead, they can only make a stop if they have reasonable suspicion that either a moving violation or some other criminal act has occurred. Often, this involves an officer witnessing a traffic violation.

If the police make a traffic stop without reasonable suspicion, any evidence they collect could be excluded by a legal doctrine known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Under this doctrine, any evidence secured from an illegal search or seizure may not be used at trial. This could include a variety of evidence like your breath test results, an admission you were drinking and driving, or dash camera video of you failing field sobriety tests.

Challenging DWI Test Results in Minnesota

While there are many ways the state can prove a DWI case, most prosecutors rely heavily on blood alcohol concentration (BAC) test results. If your attorney is able to exclude those results at trial or show a jury that the results are potentially tainted, it could result in an acquittal at your DWI trial.

There are different ways to challenge the accuracy of a chemical test. In large part it depends on what type of test is taken. For breath tests, your attorney could show the breathalyzer operator did not follow protocol or was not properly certified. With blood or urine tests, your attorney could establish the sample was mishandled or that errors were made during the testing process. Without a BAC result, the case against you could be drastically weakened.

Speak With a Minneapolis DWI Defense Lawyer Today

There is no doubt that the stress and worry that can come with a DWI arrest exists whether you are facing a misdemeanor or a felony. However, it is also clear that the consequences of a conviction are much higher for felony DWI cases. No matter the specifics of the charge, these penalties could have a life-altering impact on you and your loved ones.

The good news is that these penalties only come into play upon a conviction. With the right defense, you could avoid a conviction entirely. To get started on a defense strategy for your DWI charge, call (612) 440-3677 and schedule a free consultation with the attorneys of Gerald Miller right away.

This article was originally published on October 26, 2020 and updated on June 16, 2021.

About the author

Tyler Dahlen

Tyler weaves legal expertise with unwavering compassion in his criminal defense practice. Each case becomes a personal crusade, uncovering the human story beneath the headlines and crafting meticulous strategies that challenge the system and fight for a second chance. His relentless pursuit of justice in even the most complex DWI cases has earned him a reputation as a champion for the underdog, a voice for the unheard, and a beacon of hope in the face of adversity.

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