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After 27 DWIs, Bettcher to go free once more

Danny Bettcher

NEW YORK MILLS, Minn. - People here know Danny Bettcher for all the wrong reasons.

Many also know the number: He's had 27 convictions for drinking and driving offenses, believed to be the most ever accrued in the state.

The police who made the arrests remember him. The prosecutors who brought the charges remember him. The local activists trying to curb the behavior he embodies remember him.

On Friday, Bettcher becomes a free man for the first time in more than three years. It's unclear what he plans to do next - through his attorney, he declined to be interviewed for this story.

But for many, he remains a symbol of the limitations of the state's ability to keep chronic drunken drivers from getting behind the wheel again.

"He'll get out, and he'll just drive again," said Judy Bradow, a Fergus Falls woman who participates in multiple anti-drunken-driving programs. "He just does his stay, and that's it, and he's out."

Bettcher, 59, has done more than a few stays behind bars - three months here, six months there, the occasional year.

Many of his sentences, which date back to the 1980s, were limited by the fact that DWIs in Minnesota for years became felonies only if the driver injured or killed someone. To date, Bettcher does not appear to have done so.

The law changed in 2002 to make DWI a felony upon the fourth offense in 10 years, and Bettcher has twice been convicted of felony drunken driving since then, both times in Otter Tail County.

In May 2009, the incident leading to his current incarceration, a New York Mills police officer saw him blow through a stop sign on his motorcycle.

According to the police report, Bettcher was stumbling over during field sobriety tests and registered a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit. Police said he had urinated in his pants before being pulled over.

Heather Brandborg, an assistant Otter Tail County Attorney who prosecuted that case, said she remembers him as a defendant who had failed out of treatment multiple times.

Courts cannot mandate prison treatment, Brandborg said. After his most recent arrest, Bettcher told the Minneapolis Star Tribune he hadn't completed treatment in prison because he didn't want to look weak.

She said it's dismaying to see repeat offenders in the courtroom again and again.

Judy Bradow said she and other activists don't understand why the system hasn't been able to stop Bettcher from drinking and driving again.

"It just blows our minds why they can't keep him completely off the streets forever," she said.

But aside from further prison time, the law has few arrows left in its quiver for offenders like Bettcher.

He has already driven without a license and without insurance on multiple occasions. The state can impound his vehicle or order the installation of a device that requires a sober breath sample to start the engine, but many chronic offenders find something else to drive or other ways around the restrictions.

Lisa Borgen, a Moorhead judge, said sometimes the best a court can do is hand out a lengthy prison sentence - the toughest allowed for DWI is seven years - for and hope for the best.

"The reality is once a person has been sentenced and they do the maximum sentence, there is nothing that we can do," said Borgen, who said she could not discuss Bettcher specifically. "Once a person has done all the time, then they're out there. You cannot keep people from driving and you cannot keep people from drinking."

If that's the route Bettcher goes, local authorities will be watching.

New York Mills Police Chief Jim Van Schaick said he hasn't had much personal experience with Bettcher, but that "we're aware of him."

When told by The Forum that a chronic DWI offender was scheduled for release, Bruce Wangsness, a longtime New York Mills police officer, concluded unprompted it was Bettcher.

"Already?" said Wangsness, who otherwise declined to discuss the matter. "Holy mackerel!"