First Time DWI Charges: A Primer of Minnesota DWI Law


When facing charges for driving while impaired (DWI), many people do not understand the difference between the four degrees of DWI offenses or realize the serious legal and non-legal consequences that may result after just one DWI conviction. This article explains the difference between the four degrees of DWI offenses in Minnesota, as well as the penalties and consequences that may result from a DWI conviction.

Applicable Law

Under Minnesota law, a person may be charged with DWI if at the time of the traffic stop or within two hours of a stop the person is under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. A person may face DWI charges if they are over the “legal limit” of .08% or under the influence of a controlled substance. Additionally, a person may face a DWI charge even if his or her blood alcohol level was below the legal limit of .08%. Pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 169A.20, subd. 1(a), a person may be charged with DWI while operating a motor vehicle if “the person is under the influence of alcohol.” Therefore, you may be convicted of DWI even with a blood alcohol level lower than the legal limit.

In Minnesota, there are four degrees of DWI offenses. First-time DWI offenders may be charged with a gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances surrounding the incident. If no aggravating factors are present and the person did not refuse chemical testing (such as a field sobriety test or breathalyzer), then under Minn. Stat. § 169A.27 a person would be charged with fourth-degree DWI, a misdemeanor offense. Persons facing a misdemeanor conviction may face criminal penalties of up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000.00 fine.

If aggravating circumstances were present at the time of the offense, a first-time DWI offender may be charged with third-degree DWI or second-degree DWI, both of which are gross misdemeanor offenses. Aggravating factors include:

  1. a blood alcohol concentration of .20% at the time of the offense or within 2 hours of the offense;
  2. the presence of a child under 16 in the vehicle and the child is at least 36 months younger than the driver; and
  3. qualified prior impaired driving incidents within 10 years of the present DWI offense, which include prior DWI convictions or alcohol-related driving convictions.

Under Minn. Stat. § 169A.26, a person may be charged with third-degree DWI if one aggravating factor is present or if a person refuses to submit to chemical testing. A person may be charged with the more serious second-degree DWI under Minn. Stat. § 169A.25 if two aggravating factors were present at the time of offense or if the person refused to submit to alcohol testing and one aggravating factor is present. Persons convicted of a gross-misdemeanor offense may be sentenced up to one year in jail and pay a $3,000.00 fine.

Other Proceedings/Charges

In addition to facing DWI charges for having a blood alcohol level over the legal limit of .08%, you may face additional charges. Because Minnesota is an “implied consent” state, meaning that by driving on Minnesota roads a person consents to breath, blood, and urine chemical testing during a traffic stop if an officer has probable cause to believe a person is under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance, you may face an additional charge for failing to submit to chemical testing.

Other proceedings may be commenced as a result of a DWI charge or conviction. If your car is impounded as a result of the incident, an administrative proceeding would need to be commenced in order to prevent your car from being permanently forfeited. In addition, if another driver or passenger was injured as a result of the incident, you may also face a personal injury cause of action against that person.


If convicted of DWI, there may be criminal and administrative penalties imposed by the courts. Criminal penalties may include jail time, court fines, community service, chemical use assessment and costs associated with the assessment, and attendance of an alcohol safety program. As explained above, refusing to consent to chemical testing may carry additional penalties and a more severe DWI charge. Administrative penalties may include vehicle impoundment and forfeiture, driver's license suspension or revocation and administrative fees for license reinstatement, impoundment of license plates, and remote electronic alcohol-monitoring. A person assessed administrative penalties is responsible for the costs associated with reinstatement and program fees unless he or she is indigent.

In addition, you may face non-legal consequences, including denied admittance into Canada for a first DWI conviction. Further, having a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor on your criminal record may affect your employability.