Brandon Stahl and Paul Walsh
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Danny Lee Bettcher already had a state record 27 drunken driving arrests and had spent the past 10 years in and out of jails and prison.
But somehow the 64-year-old western Minnesotan possessed a valid license on Sept. 28 and was served alcohol at a New York Mills VFW. Shortly after leaving the bar, he was arrested and charged with DWI No. 28.
Prolific offenders such as Bettcher illustrate an aspect of Minnesota's drunken driving laws that troubles law enforcement and advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): No matter how many drunken driving arrests one driver racks up—whether seven, 17 or 27—there is no law in Minnesota allowing for someone to lose their license for life.
Brian Schlueter, who's been the Otter Tail County sheriff for the past 15 years, said he and others in law enforcement worry that Bettcher could seriously hurt or kill someone — or himself. But getting him off the road for good is out of law enforcement's hands.
"We don't get to make those choices," Schlueter said. "For us in law enforcement, we'd like to see [chronic repeat offenders] held more accountable. That's up to the court system."
A state Department of Public Safety spokeswoman, Megan Leonard, said the agency follows state law when reinstating a driver's license. If someone's license is canceled, Leonard said, the agency must reinstate driving privileges if the offender has met rehabilitation requirements such as completing treatment, having insurance and paying various fees.
In 2015, 95 people died from drunken driving crashes in the state, according to the DPS. In 2016, 632,198 Minnesotans had at least one DWI on their record — a total of about one in every nine residents.
A handful of states, including Oregon, North Carolina and New York, have laws that permanently ban drivers from being licensed after several DWIs.
Art Morrow, Minnesota's executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the state needs to be added to that list. According to MADD, Minnesota has one of the lower safety ratings against drunken driving in the country.
"It is crazy. It is an outrage that somebody could be driving with that many DWIs," Morrow said.
Bettcher's attorney, Schan Sorkness, didn't respond to numerous messages seeking comment.
Leonard said that Bettcher won back his license most recently after he checked off these necessary boxes: submitted proof of rehabilitation; passed a driver's test; passed a written drug and alcohol test; paid a $680 reinstatement fee; and met with an evaluator and submitted a written form declaring when he last used alcohol or an illicit drug.
"I'm all for giving people another chance" to drive legally, Schlueter said, "But 27 [DWIs] seems like quite a few."
State Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, agrees. After learning that Bettcher had a license despite his numerous DWI convictions, Zerwas said he will bring the issue to the Legislature.
"At some point, we need to make sure that once someone has proven to disregard the law over the course of his life, they're not allowed to operate a motor vehicle in the state of Minnesota again," said Zerwas, a member of the House's Public Safety and Security Policy committee.
Not all of Bettcher's DWIs over the decades have resulted in a drunken-driving conviction, said Assistant Otter Tail County Attorney Jacob Thomason, who added that Bettcher's propensity for driving drunk under various aliases in several jurisdictions makes it difficult to track.
"Looking over the history, it looked like some DWI arrests ended in other charges," Thomason said, "and the DWI charges were dropped in plea deals in some of the earlier cases."
In and out of prison
Court records show Bettcher's most recent DWI conviction was in January 2010, when an Otter Tail County judge sentenced him to four years in prison.
He was put on supervised release in January 2012, according to the state Department of Corrections (DOC), but only five months later was returned to custody for violating terms of the release.
That pattern would continue for the next five years, as Bettcher would frequently get out of jail or prison only to be sent back for violating conditions.
In May 2014, Bettcher was a Stillwater inmate when he wrote a letter to the Otter Tail County judge asking for dismissal of fines from his DWI conviction.
"I am making this request because I'm trying to get my life back on track before I am released," Bettcher wrote. "Presently I'm working on getting into the V.A. hospital in St. Cloud for PTSD treatment from my military experience after I'm released. I also have secured my driver's license and taken care of my birth certificate problems while in prison."
It wasn't until Dec. 12, 2014, while Bettcher was still locked up in Stillwater, that the DPS restored his driving privileges, records show.
With a license in tow, the DOC released Bettcher again on Dec. 29, 2014, and it was just four months later that he was back in jail for a probation violation.
He was last incarcerated in the Wright County jail from April 2016 until January 2017, when he was released after his most recent DWI conviction expired. The DOC said he was no longer on any kind of state monitoring.
Bettcher appeared to have no other legal run-ins until that visit to the New York Mills VFW on Sept. 28, when he had a beer at the bar.
The post commander, Roger Pederson, said the bartender that night didn't know Bettcher. And while Bettcher had a restricted license that showed he was not supposed to drink alcohol, whether driving or not, Pederson said the bartender didn't check.
"She's not going to ID someone who's 65 or older," Pederson said.
Someone else in the bar, however, did recognize Bettcher. That person went up to off-duty deputy Ryan Brasel, according to Sheriff Schlueter.
The deputy radioed an on-duty supervisor, who told him not to approach Bettcher for fear he might run. After Bettcher left the VFW and drove off, Brasel called an on-duty sergeant, who arrived in time to see Bettcher blow through a stop sign and swerve on the highway, according to the criminal complaint.
With the squad lights flashing behind him, Bettcher drove another 200 yards before stopping.
"I'm way over. Take me to jail," the charging document quoted Bettcher as saying. And he was—again.