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Whiskey plates

Whiskey plates – REQUIRED plates after CERTAIN ALCOHOL RELATED violations

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Collateral DWI Consequences in Minnesota – License Plate Impoundment and the ‘Scarlet Letter’ of Whiskey Plates

For many drivers, one of the most embarrassing consequences of receiving a DWI in Minnesota is the “whiskey plates” requirement. This law mandates that special series plates be displayed after a vehicle’s regular license plates are impounded for certain alcohol-related violations.

Whiskey plates are special series license plates that start with a “W” and another letter followed by four numbers. Many drivers and their families regard whiskey plates as a ‘badge of shame,’ which informs the public that the driver (or a member of the driver’s household) was previously involved in a DWI offense.

The law, as originally enacted, authorized officers to stop any vehicle displaying whiskey plates to investigate whether the driver had a valid license. Although this provision was struck down as unconstitutional by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2003, the whiskey plate requirement remains under the justification that it gives law enforcement a ‘heads up’ that the vehicle or the driver was previously involved in a DWI incident and may be subject to greater scrutiny by officers.

Minnesota law requires that a vehicle’s license plates be impounded after certain alcohol related violations including:

- any DWI conviction, test refusal conviction, or implied consent revocation within 10 years of a qualifying prior impaired driving incident;
- any Commercial Driver’s License disqualification within 10 years of a qualifying prior incident;
- any DWI conviction or implied consent revocation with an alcohol concentration of twice the legal limit (0.16) or more;
- any DWI conviction, test refusal conviction, or implied consent revocation with a child under the age of 16 in the vehicle, provided that the driver is 36 months older; or
- driving without a valid license by an offender whose driving privileges have been canceled and denied as inimical to public safety (resulting from multiple previous impaired driving incidents).

When a violation occurs triggering plate impoundment, the arresting officer will physically impound the plates from the vehicle used in violation and issue a plate impoundment order for that vehicle and any other vehicle owned, registered, or leased in the name of the driver. This includes motorcycles, self-propelled RVs, jointly owned vehicles, and company ‘fleet’ vehicles owned by an individual or registered in the individual’s name. Trailers, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), boats, recreational trailers and other vehicles not registered or titled in Minnesota, including out-of-state license plates, are not subject to license plate impoundment.

Usually the arresting officer will issue the plate impoundment order to a driver at the time of arrest. While the order is effective immediately, it will also include a temporary vehicle permit valid for 7 days (45 days if the violator is not the owner). In cases where the violator is not the owner, a copy of the plate impoundment order and temporary permit must be served on the owner, usually by mail.

Subsequent to the impoundment, either the violator or registered owner may apply for new “whiskey” registration plates which will allow anyone with a valid or limited license to operate the vehicle during the plate impound period. These plates will be issued so long as:

- a properly licensed substitute driver or member of the violator’s household agrees to drive the vehicle;
- the violator’s driving privileges have been reinstated; or
- the owner is not the violator and has a valid license.

Plate impoundment lasts for a minimum of one year. During this time, the violator may not drive any motor vehicle unless the vehicle displays the whiskey plates and the violator has had their driving privileges reinstated. In addition, the violator may also not sell the vehicle or transfer title to family members or roommates during the impoundment period.

It is a misdemeanor for a driver subject to an impoundment order to drive any vehicle that does not display special series (‘whiskey’) plates.

Even though courts have previously upheld legal challenges to whiskey plates on the basis that the plate impoundment law promotes public safety by providing law enforcement with a valuable tool to identify vehicles previously involved in DWI incidents, the law nevertheless has the effect of shaming drivers arrested for DWI, as well as innocent family members who drive vehicles subject to plate impoundment.

Prosecutors and legislators now agree that whiskey plates serve no valid public safety purpose. Recently, a bill was introduced in the Minnesota Senate that would allow drivers subject to plate impoundment to avoid the whiskey plate requirement by enrolling in the state’s ignition interlock program. Proponents of the bill, including law enforcement groups, prosecution associations and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), all agree that public safety will be better served utilizing an interlock device – where the driver has to blow alcohol-free before starting their car – than the shaming ‘scarlet letter’ that whiskey plates currently represent.

If you find yourself facing DWI or OWI charges or have been served with a license plate impoundment order and want to try to avoid whiskey plates, it is extremely important to have an experienced attorney to challenge the evidence being used against you, raise possible defenses and explain your best options for getting your driving privileges restored as soon as possible. Attorneys are available 24 hours a day/7 days a week. Call us at 612-334-3342.

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