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New Minnesota law extends drunken driving restrictions to recreational vehicles

Marybeth Lonnee says on Tuesday, July 31, 2018, that the death of her grandson, 8-year-old Alan Geisenkoetter Jr., inspired her to fight for keeping drunken drivers out of the driver's seat of cars, boats, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and other motorized devices. The boy was hit by a man whose driver's license was revoked for drunken driving violations. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL—Minnesotans operating recreational vehicles such as boats, all-terrain vehicles, jet skis, snowmobiles and other powered vehicles while drinking now are being treated the same as people who drink and drive cars or trucks.

That is good news to Marybeth Lonnee, grandmother of an 8-year-old boy who died in January after being struck by a snowmobile operated by a man whose driver's license was revoked after being convicted of drunken driving multiple times.

"I am very motivated to make the law stiffer," Lonnee told reporters Tuesday, July 31, a day before legislation named after her grandson becomes law.

Little Alan's Law means Minnesota now treats drivers of motorized recreational vehicles the same as when they drive cars and trucks. In the past, people with drunken driving convictions still could operate vehicles such as boats, all-terrain vehicles, jet skis and snowmobiles.

The new law says that if someone cannot drive a car or truck because of drunken driving convictions, they cannot drive recreational vehicles either. Also, people convicted of drunken driving with a recreational vehicle will lose car-driving privileges.

"We have zero tolerance for people who endanger themselves and other people by operating a motor vehicle or recreational vehicle while they're intoxicated," said Col. Rodmen Smith, director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Enforcement Division. "This new law should send the message that drinking and driving—no matter what the vehicle—isn't acceptable and the consequences are severe."

Alan Geisenkoetter of Wyoming, Minn., was struck by a snowmobile on a lake near his family's ice fishing shelter last January. He died shortly after. Authorities identified the driver as 45-year-old Eric Coleman.

Coleman's previous drunken driving convictions prevented him from driving a car, but not the snowmobile.

As the Geisenkoetter family argued in favor of applying drunken driving laws to operators of recreational vehicles, the legislation took on the name Little Alan's Law in the 2018 Minnesota Legislature.

Lonnee said she will work for even stricter laws than the new one after a court case involving her grandson's death concludes.

The old law specifically exempted boat, snowmobile and ATV operators from some of the drunken driving laws.

Smith said statewide snowmobile and ATV groups helped get the new law passed. So did the boy's family, he added.

A related law, known as "not a drop," also was expanded, Smith said. It had required that car drivers younger than 21 could have no alcohol in their systems. The change expands that to recreational vehicle operators.

It was ironic that a motorized vehicle was involved in Geisenkoetter's death.

"He loved everything connected to a motor," Lonnee said.

"He took a boy full of love, full of happiness, full of curiosity and full of wanting to help others without being asked," she said of the snowmobile driver. "He took a boy who loved the outdoors. He loved hunting, fishing and biking."

North Branch Republican state Sen. Mark Koran and Rep. Anne Neu said their bill added nothing to existing law; it just removes the exceptions for recreational vehicles. Some statewide groups involved with the vehicles thought operators already could be charged with drunken driving, Neu said.

"This is a start," Neu said. "We closed some loopholes today."

However, Smith said that a culture of drinking while operating boats and recreational vehicles will be hard to break.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.