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Minnesota Criminal Law: An Overview

How is the Minnesota criminal justice system set up, and what can you expect should you ever face criminal charges? Read on to learn about the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony, what is involved in drunk driving charges, and many other state-specific criminal law topics.

Defining Minnesota Crime Classifications

There are three different crime classifications in Minnesota. The state defines each grouping by severity and the associated potential penalties. Petty misdemeanors are not considered crimes, are punishable by a $300 fine, but could affect your insurance rates and driving record.

Misdemeanors are punishable by up to 90 days behind bars. Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor may also have to pay up to a $1,000 fine. A fine may be the only penalty in some cases.

A gross misdemeanor charge is punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $3,000.


Felonies are the most severe offense level under Minnesota criminal law and are punishable by at least 12 months in prison. Actual fines and length of prison sentences, however, may depend on the crime and specific criminal charges you face. Repeat offenders of lower level crimes could also face felony charges.

Examples of felony offenses include:

  • Murder: punishable by life in prison
  • Domestic assault: punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, depending on past criminal cases
  • First-degree criminal sexual conduct: punishable by a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and fines of up to $40,000
  • Controlled substance and drug crimes: punishable by up to a $10,000 fine and a maximum of five years behind bars

Note that recreational use of marijuana is still illegal under both state and federal law. You could face charges ranging from a gross misdemeanor to a felony charge. A first offense conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.

Minnesota Drunk Driving Laws

Minnesota refers to drunk driving as driving while intoxicated or DWI, although driving under the influence, commonly known as a DUI, is a widely used term that you may be more familiar with. A person of legal drinking age may face DWI charges in Minnesota if they:

  • Are found by police officers to be under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or both
  • Have a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.08% or higher within two hours of getting behind the wheel
  • Have any amount of a controlled substance in their body

Penalties include loss of your driver’s license, jail time, loss of your vehicle on your third DWI conviction within 10 years, and mandated surrender of your license plate.

The state has a zero-tolerance policy for anyone under the legal drinking age of 21 and an implied consent law legally requiring all drivers to comply with BAC and chemical testing.

Manslaughter Laws in Minnesota

Minnesota has two degrees of manslaughter charges. Both first-degree and second-degree manslaughter are felony charges. 

  • First-degree manslaughter, also commonly referred to as voluntary manslaughter, refers to intentionally causing someone else’s death. Unlike a murder charge, however, first-degree manslaughter occurs when the killer acts “in the heat of passion” or is coerced into killing someone. A common example would be discovering a cheating spouse in the act. 
  • Second-degree manslaughter, also commonly referred to as involuntary manslaughter, refers to causing someone’s death through reckless or grossly negligent actions. Even if the death was unintentional, those reckless or negligent acts can bring about second-degree manslaughter charges.

A first-degree manslaughter conviction can mean up to 15 years in jail and a fine of up to $30,000, while a second-degree manslaughter conviction can mean up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $20,000.

Finding the Right Criminal Defense Attorney

Do you need to research Minneapolis or St. Paul area law firms to find the right lawyer for you? Or are you located elsewhere in Minnesota? You can find attorneys that practice in your area on But before you hire anyone, make sure you’ve covered the basics to mount the best possible defense against your criminal charges. You may want to consider the following:

  • Does the law office offer a free consultation?
  • Does he criminal defense lawyer have a track record proving their commitment to work hard for potential clients like you?
  • Do their practice areas match your needs? For example, if you are facing drug charges, do they have a lot of experience defending people in drug cases? Or if charged with a federal crime, does the law office have experience with federal courts?
  • How many years of experience do they have?
  • Do they have jury trial experience?
  • Do you feel reassured by the legal advice provided to you?
  • Are there online testimonials that give you a better idea of what it is like to work with that criminal lawyer?

There are a lot of considerations when you interview a criminal defense lawyer. In order to avoid a guilty verdict, take the time to find an attorney that understands your legal issue and can advocate for you in order to get the best possible outcome under the circumstances.

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