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Dave Roepke, Published May 13 2010

Jury trial allowed in North Dakota traffic cases

Perry Mason, meet petty cases.

A North Dakota Supreme Court ruling issued Tuesday requires courts to let a defendant cited for violating noncriminal municipal traffic laws demand a trial by jury instead of by judge.

The 3-2 opinion applies to citations for breaking city traffic laws not considered criminal offenses as long as the fine is $20 or more – for instance, a ticket for speeding or running a red light.

Local prosecutors say the ruling could end up taking a lot of the court system’s time if sitting a six-person jury for contested traffic tickets becomes common.

“I think it’s a pretty big deal,” said Tristan Van de Streek, an assistant Cass County state’s attorney and a former Fargo city prosecutor. “Obviously, a jury trial is a lot of work.”

Scott Diamond, a Fargo city prosecutor, said if a few people a year exercise their right to a traffic-law jury trial, the additional time strain would be small.

If it ended up being several jury trials a year, that could be a significant time burden for the two-lawyer office, Diamond said.

“It’s kind of hard to imagine,” he said. “I certainly can’t predict what the public will do.”

Of the 16,876 noncriminal traffic offenses in Fargo in 2009, only 125 went to trial, said Susan Thompson, the clerk of court for the Fargo Municipal Court.

Tuesday’s opinion was on a petition filed by Roland Riemers, who was cited for following too close after a July 22, 2009, accident in Grand Forks involving his motor scooter. Municipal judges in Grand Forks denied his motion for a jury trial in District Court.

Arguing on his own behalf in the Nov. 30 oral arguments before the Supreme Court, Riemers said he’d have a better shake with a jury than a judge.

“Most judges aren’t going to spend a lot of time trying to decide the case. They’re going to go with what the officer says,” he said.

Riemers’ legal argument centered on an 1887 law in the Dakota Territory, two years before North Dakota became a state, that explicitly allows for a jury-trial demand for city laws that carry a penalty of at least a $20 fine or 10 days in jail.

Van de Streek said it was not clear whether the opinion applies to the state’s noncriminal traffic laws or only the municipal laws.

The opinion doesn’t mention state traffic laws. Van de Streek said that based on the ruling, it could depend on whether Dakota Territory established any territorial traffic laws before North Dakota was established as a state.

“That’s the deciding factor,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535