Party too hearty and you can land in big trouble


“What a party,” you think as you drive  home.

Suddenly, the night sky fills with flashing red and blue lights and you worry,  you might be in trouble. Did you drink too much to be driving legally?

DWI laws confuse a lot of people. Even the name itself is confusing. DWI is sometimes called DUI. In Minnesota, the acronyms DWI (“driving while intoxicated”) and DUI (“driving while under the influence”) are used interchangeably. Each refers to laws that prohibit someone from driving, operating or being in physical control of a motor vehicle when they have had too much alcohol to drink.

How do you know how much alcohol is too much?

Generally speaking, the legal limit in Minnesota is .08. That number refers to the concentration of alcohol measured in a statutorily prescribed amount of a person’s blood, breath, or urine. Our laws conclude that people cannot safely operate motor vehicles with an alcohol concentration of .08 or more. Our law says that driving in such a condition constitutes an illegal danger to the public.

Further, since there is a time lag for alcohol to be fully absorbed into — or dissipated from — a person’s body, it is also illegal to test at .08 or more within two hours of the time of driving.

That’s not the end, however. Even if you didn’t drink enough to register .08 or more, you can still be prosecuted for DWI because it is also illegal to operate a motor vehicle if the alcohol you consumed, regardless of the amount, affects your driving abilities.

There is a jury instruction that is sometimes used in DWI trials that says a person has had too much to drink if they “do not have the clearness of intellect and control of themselves as they would have if they had not consumed any alcohol.”

That is a pretty tough standard. It is one of the reasons why police officers ask drivers to perform what are known as “field sobriety tests.” These roadside tests like reciting the ABC’s, standing on one foot, walking a straight line or touching your finger to your nose are designed to see if the person has a satisfactory clearness of intellect and control of them self.

Because of these various methods of defining which driving conduct is illegal, many are surprised to learn a DWI frequently results in three separate criminal charges: Driving under the influence of alcohol, driving with an alcohol concentration of .08 or more, and testing at .08 or more within two hours of driving.

Each is a separate criminal charge. A person found guilty of any of the three ends up with a DWI on their record.

All of this reveals that the law takes drinking and driving very seriously. Minnesota law reflects the public sentiment that there should be significant efforts taken to discourage people from driving when they have had too much to drink.

Tenth Judicial District Judge Greg Galler is chambered in Washington County. If you have a general question about the law or courts for the judge, send your question to the editor of this newspaper. Learn more about Galler, or listen to a podcast of his columns at