Tom Emmer's DWI legislation under the microscope

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Is Tom Emmer soft on drunken drivers?
Tom Emmer's 1981 and 1991 arrests for drunk driving have been back in the spotlight this week after a liberal coalition released an ad this week. The Alliance for a Better Minnesota, which made the advertisement, defended the foray into the GOP gubernatorial candidate's private life by linking it to a bill he sponsored 18 years later as a legislator.



"The ad isn't about human frailty -- we all make mistakes," says Denise Cardinal, the group's executive director. "It's about the fact that he then used his position as a legislator to try to lessen the penalties for drunk drivers."

Emmer's campaign quickly countered that he "never introduced legislation to reduce penalties for drunk drivers," and said that the bill he proposed in 2009 came "at the request of local prosecutors."

Emmer's critics have pointed out that the local prosecutor in question, Tom Weidner, is also attached to a defense firm that handles DWI cases. Weidner says that fact had nothing to do with his urging Emmer to sponsor DWI legislation. "The only DWI case I've defended recently was for free, for a friend," he says.

The real reason he asked Emmer to change the DWI law, Weidner says, is that the current system of handling drunk drivers is needlessly duplicative and expensive. Emmer's bill (you can read the official summary here) would have eliminated the civil penalties that attach to accused drunk drivers before they are convicted of a crime.

Weidner argues that by penalizing drunk drivers both civilly and criminally, the state is basically paying twice to punish drunk drivers. And as our cover story on the state's DWI laws made clear, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the civil penalties for drunk drivers. Public defenders say the poor get especially screwed by the laws, sometimes winding up with DWIs on their records even if they're found innocent in a criminal trial.

So it's not true that Emmer's bill wouldn't have reduced penalties for drunk drivers -- it would have let them keep their licenses and plates until they were actually convicted. But it's not fair to paint his legislation as the self-serving madness of a DWI apologist, either.

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