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Minnesota's DWI Laws: Which Offenses Require Ignition Interlock and Whiskey Plates? (Part 1 of 3)

Posted by attorney Jay Carey

The Minnesota Legislature recently passed sweeping changes to Minnesota's DWI laws, which take effect July 1, 2011. With notable exceptions for certain "first-time" offenders with alcohol concentrations less than 0.16 or who refuse chemical testing, the new laws require alleged offenders to choose between (i) participating in the Ignition Interlock Device Program (IIDP) for one to six years or (ii) going at least one year without any driving privileges, including no right to a limited license (commonly called a "work license"). In addition, the new laws will require affected drivers to obtain special registration plates, a.k.a, "whiskey" license plates, on any vehicle the driver owns or co-owns during the period in which the driver does not have full driving privileges (ordinarily at least one year).

Please note that this guide is intended to provide a general summary of the new laws. It is not intended to address all situations. Minnesota's DWI laws are complex, and the new laws have added greater complexity, which can be confounding to even the seasoned DWI practitioner. In addition, people charged with DWI often have unique circumstances, including underage drivers, commercial drivers, prior out-of-state convictions/license revocations, B Card license holders, DWI incidents involving injury, and DWI incidents involving significant injury such as Criminal Vehicular Operation. I urge any driver to consult with an experienced attorney regarding the specifics of one's case before taking action in the matter.

What is an ignition interlock device?

An ignition interlock device is a hand-held unit that is installed in a vehicle and monitors a driver's alcohol concentration upon starting the vehicle and at various intervals while operating the vehicle. A driver cannot start the vehicle if the device records an alcohol concentration of 0.02 or more. After three non-compliant tests during a one-month period, the device will notify the driver of a pending "lock out" that will occur within 72 hours. A driver then must visit his interlock vendor to avoid a complete disabling of the vehicle. In order to participate in the program, a driver must pay an approved vendor between $60 and $125 per month and visit the vendor for servicing once a month. A vendor may charge up to $100 for installation and $50 for removal of the device. Thus, the program has significant costs and requirements for its participants. You can find much greater detail about the IIDP at (

What are special registration plates, a.k.a., "whiskey" license plates?

A driver subject to license plate impoundment following a DWI incident, must obtain special registration plates ("whiskey plates") on any vehicle he owns or co-owns for the applicable period of plate impoundment, usually at least one year. The whiskey plates have unique characteristics that make them readily identifiable to law enforcement. They are commonly called "whiskey" plates because they start with the letter "W" and are followed by a second letter and 4 numerals. It is a misdemeanor offense for anyone to drive a vehicle subject to plate impoundment without obtaining and displaying the whiskey plates - even if the driver has never been involved in a DWI incident. If a driver owns or co-owns multiple vehicles, he must obtain whiskey plates on all vehicles that are to be driven during the impoundment period. Currently, the Department of Public Safety charges an owner approximately $57 for each set of whiskey plates and charges the owner an additional $57 to remove the plates upon completion of the impoundment period.

Can law enforcement stop a vehicle with whiskey plates for no reason?

No, but the whiskey plates can be one factor, but not the sole factor, used by law enforcement to establish "reasonable suspicion of criminal activity," which is the constitutional standard justifying a lawful traffic stop. Interestingly, the Minnesota Legislature intended the plate impoundment statute to permit law enforcement to stop any vehicle bearing whiskey plates simply to check the lawful status of the driver, but the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2003 deemed that statute unconstitutional. See ( Nevertheless, persons driving vehicles with whiskey plates should expect greater scrutiny by law enforcement, and in practice, often are stopped by law enforcement with greater frequency than those driving vehicles with regular plates.

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