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A beer mug superimposed on a driver.

*Not her real name.

DWI Task Force implements change beyond the University

U professor works to better legal process for people caught driving while intoxicated

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, Nov. 8, 2006

When Minneapolis resident Judy Wheeler* was recently pulled over and arrested for driving while intoxicated--DWI--she underwent a local process that included blood-alcohol tests and vehicle plate impoundment and penalties. That process has changed in recent years. At the forefront of many of the changes is U faculty member Steve Simon, director of the DWI Task Force.

Simon, a clinical professor in the Law School, founed the task force, part of the Minnesota criminal justice system since 1982. The task force is an organization of professionals and traffic safety advocates who meet monthly at the Law School to discuss DWI problem-solving and legislation.

"The key to the task force is that we bring together people from every part of the system, from the very beginning to the very end--from the police officer to the jail, from the judge to the probation officer, from the prosecutor to the defense attorney," says Simon.

The DWI Task Force received its initial funding from a U of M grant. Three years later, the state adopted the DWI Task Force and provided funding for the next seven years. In 1992, when state funding ran out, Simon and the task force faced a tough decision: Should they continue the task force without any external funding?

They decided to continue their work with DWI legislation--each donating their professional time and expertise. The Law School provides meeting space and limited secretarial and research assistant time for preparation and mailings.

Simon, who practiced law for 10 years before joining the Law School faculty in 1980, holds a strong opinion that public engagement--with or without pay--is one of the important and necessary functions of a university.

"This was civic engagement way before the term was even coined," says Simon. "It is bringing citizens and professionals to the university and creating a forum for an incredible exchange of ideas, both identification of problems and identification of solutions. It is what universities should be doing."

The task force has been an impetus for many of the innovative and recent developments in DWI legislation. It lobbied for enhanced penalties for driver's license violations for repeat DWI offenders, and it created an administrative vehicle license plate impoundment system. In addition, the task force was a leader in the legislative movement that resulted in the criminalizing of alcohol concentration test refusals.

Simon's three hats

Simon likes to say that, here at the Law School, he wears three hats. In addition to implementing DWI research and law reform as the director of the DWI Task Force, he is a professor of clinical education and he is also one of the country's leaders in the development of judicial education.

As a professor of clinical education, Simon provides second- and third-year law students with a unique educational opportunity. He teaches a misdemeanor defense clinic, a misdemeanor prosecution clinic, and trial practice. His work with law students is fostering the development of the nation's next generation of lawyers. Under the Student Practice Rule adopted by the Minnesota Supreme Court, clinic students are permitted to represent clients in actual court proceedings under the supervision of the Clinic faculty.

Steve Simon
Professor Steve Simon. Photo courtesy of the Law School.

"They learn by doing," says Simon. "They develop an understanding of the way the real criminal justice system works--that's my raison d'etre."

Simon's work as a judicial educator is also significant. He has developed several programs that are now mandatory for every Minnesota judge. For instance, every new judge in Minnesota is required to come to the Law School and participate in a mock trial with professional litigators as an introduction to courtroom management. As a faulty member of the National Judicial College since 1998, Simon travels three or four times annually to train judges around the country in courtroom management and evidence in the courtroom.

Changing the world one day at a time

As the director of the DWI Task Force for almost 25 years, Simon is dedicated not only to DWI research and reform, but to improving the world around us.

"I tell my kids, 'I don't care what you do in life--you can become a doctor or flip burgers, but whatever you do, try to make the world a better place,'" says Simon. "I think that's what we all should be doing."

Simon also sees his work as a model for other parts of the University to engage with the community and effect change.

"The University can serve as a catalyst for the exchange of ideas, problem solving, and implementation," says Simon. "The real-world problems are fundamentally solved by what works. One job for the University, in terms of research, is figuring out what works and what doesn't. You can only solve real problems if you implement solutions that work."


Stephanie Wilkes is a junior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail wilk0268@umn.edu.