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Dave Roepke, Published May 31 2010

DUI pilot project expands to Cass

Drunken drivers in Cass County busted twice in 10 years may soon need to submit to twice-daily alcohol testing, depending on where they’re arrested and which judge sets their bail.

Breath testing for repeat DUI offenders has been in place in Burleigh County for about two years, a pilot project that’s now expanding to the rest of the state.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a prime backer of the 24/7 Sobriety initiative, said the program is meant to require anyone arrested for at least their second DUI offense in a decade to give a breath sample twice a day at the county jail. Anyone who fails the test is held in jail until a court hearing.

Stenehjem said he likes the daily testing because it takes alcohol out of the equation for drunk drivers, which is likely to be more effective than restrictions on driving privileges.

“That doesn’t work,” he said of targeting driving. “What we need to tell people is that if you continue to drink and drive, we’re going to stop you from drinking.”

The threat of jail looming as an instant consequence acts as a strong deterrent, Stenehjem said.

“They don’t care what’s going to happen to them in a month. They want to know what’s going to happen to them this afternoon,” he said.

Though the intent of the program is to have it apply to all DUI arrests with a prior in the past decade without exception, there’s no statutory requirement that it be included as a bail condition, Stenehjem said.

Cheri Clark, an assistant Cass County state’s attorney, said the county prosecutors have been requesting the testing requirement for the past couple weeks.

She said she thinks it will improve public safety and noted that daily testing for repeated drunken drivers has been standard practice in Minnesota for years.

But Clark said she does not think all eight judges in the district that includes Cass County are willing to mandate testing for each second-in-10-years arrest.

District court handles all the DUI cases of officers not working in cities with a municipal court, such as Fargo and West Fargo. District court also ends up with many of the worst repeat DUI offenders, as those cases mean higher-level misdemeanors.

In Fargo Municipal Court, there’s been no talk yet of implementing the sobriety program, said City Prosecutor Scott Diamond. He’s not sure how it would work to have the county running a program for the city-run municipal court, he said.

Diamond said he’d like to see how the alcohol testing plays out in district court before exploring using it on two-time DUI offenders in municipal court.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen,” he said.

The program began at the Cass County Jail in early May. Seven people were enrolled by the middle of last week, said Sgt. Al Kulesa, the program administrator at the jail.

“They did tell us we would have a slow build,” Kulesa said.

Based on the demand for a similar program used for four years in Minnehaha County, where Sioux Falls, S.D., is located, Kulesa said he believes Cass County’s 24/7 Sobriety program may eventually expand to 350 to 400 participants.

That would please Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney, another strong supporter of 24/7 Sobriety. Like many of the program’s backers, he would like to see it expand beyond drunken driving to other cases where drinking played a major role – for example, domestic assault.

“We could certainly handle whatever the judges send us. That wouldn’t be an issue,” Laney said.

Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said any prosecutor in the state knows alcohol abuse is the root of much of their work, which is why he’d also like to employ the testing in a wider range of cases.

“I think there are times where it’ll be just the thing to do,” Burdick said.

24/7 Sobriety program

Here are some details of how the 24/7 Sobriety program works at the Cass County Jail:



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