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Hennepin County sheriff pleads guilty to misdemeanor drunken-driving offense

16December 2021

Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson pleaded guilty Thursday to a misdemeanor charge of drunken driving and said he is enrolled in an outpatient treatment program to address his issues with alcohol.

Hutchinson crashed his SUV at 2:30 a.m. Dec. 8 on Interstate 94 near Alexandria after attending a state sheriffs conference.

His blood alcohol content was 0.13%; the state legal limit is 0.08%. According to a search warrant, officers who responded to the scene concluded Hutchinson was intoxicated because of a strong odor of alcohol, poor balance and slurred speech.

The State Patrol told Hutchinson he was lucky to be alive after rolling his SUV, Hutchinson’s attorney, Fred Bruno, told the Star Tribune last week.

In a written statement Thursday afternoon, Hutchinson, who suffered three broken ribs and head and hip injuries, said the crash was a “wake-up call for me.”

“I understand the seriousness of my actions, for which I take full responsibility,” he wrote.

Enrolling in the outpatient treatment program will be the “first step in the road toward recovery and regaining the trust of the people I work with and the residents of Hennepin County whom I serve,” said Hutchinson, who noted that he has returned to work.

Last week, while he was recovering at Alomere Hospital in Alexandria, Hutchinson was served a summons, charged with fourth-degree driving while impaired, operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% within two hours and carrying a pistol under the influence of alcohol.

Minnesota has four levels of drunken-driving offenses, with fourth-degree being the least serious. Criminal defense attorney Marsh Halberg, who doesn’t represent Hutchinson, said the fourth-degree charge is standard because the sheriff is a first-time offender, he didn’t refuse a blood alcohol test and his blood alcohol was 0.13%. A 0.16% level would have pushed him up to a third-degree charge, Halberg said.

On Thursday, Hutchinson entered his guilty plea to fourth-degree DWI via a plea petition, which according to Douglas County Attorney Chad Larson is customary for a misdemeanor-level offense. The remaining charges will be dismissed because under state law Hutchinson can be convicted of only one drunken-driving offense related to this incident, Larson said in a written statement.

The state has agreed to a continuance for dismissal on a charge of carrying a pistol while under the influence, Larson said.

The plea agreement, Larson said, calls for a stayed jail sentence of 90 days, up to two years of probation, a $500 fine, a chemical-use assessment and a requirement that he follow the assessment’s recommendations. Hutchinson also must abstain from alcohol and nonprescribed controlled substances and submit to random testing to ensure he abstains.

Larson said it’s a standard misdemeanor sentence for anyone with a first-time drunken-driving conviction.

“This case came to my office like any other case does,” Larson said in the statement. “It was processed like any other case is. The disposition is standard. I am pleased with the sheriff’s decision to take responsibility for this offense in a swift manner.”

Larson noted that under state law the investigative data in this case will not be made public until Hutchinson’s right to an appeal is exhausted.

Halberg agreed that Hutchinson received the standard sentence for a first-time offender.

“He was treated no better than anybody else,” he said.

Hutchinson’s position as sheriff, however, brought more attention than would have been paid to similar, lesser-known offenders, Halberg said.

“On one hand, you can make the argument that he betrayed his public trust, but on the other side, he’s getting a greater penalty because of the publicity that he has to carry around,” Halberg said. “Your next-door neighbor would never know if you got a DWI, where this guy is in the public limelight.”

On Thursday, before Larson and Hutchinson released their statements, photos of Hutchinson’s mangled SUV emerged on a local activist journalist’s Twitter account. The photos show the aftereffects of the crash: twisted metal, broken glass, the remnants of a deployed airbag and personal items strewn about, such as food containers and a package of legal, hemp-based gummies..

Hutchinson’s lawyer maintains the photos were staged. Larson agreed.

State Patrol officials and Larson said the photos are not from any official case file. Larson said he didn’t know who released the photos, which weren’t taken in connection with the law enforcement investigation but at the impound lot that received the vehicle after the crash.

The leaked photos won’t have any impact on Hutchinson’s prosecution, Larson said.

“Once a vehicle is processed, it has little evidentiary value. So I’m not really concerned about the photos,” he said.

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