Published October 05 2012
North Dakota drunken-driving laws to be targeted for harsher penalties
It was April 1980, prom night at Fargo’s North High. Fifteen-year-old Leah Eisenhardt and her friends weren’t old enough to go, so they went to Dairy Queen instead and headed home for a sleepover.
On the way home, they blew a tire on a county road north of Fargo.
They changed it just as they’d been taught, with someone keeping watch on either end of the car. But they weren’t ready for the driver who came speeding around the curve.
As he hurtled toward the girls, Leah’s friend went flat against the car. Leah didn’t, and was thrown by the oncoming car.
By 8:30 p.m., she was dead on the scene. At 9:50 p.m., Karen Eisenhardt, her mother, saw a teaser for the evening news: “North side girl killed north of Fargo.” Karen, a teacher, worried it might have been one of her students.
At 10 p.m., the doorbell rang. It was a sheriff’s representative, a highway patrolman and a pastor dressed in a cowboy hat and jeans to minimize the shock.
“They said, ‘Do you have a daughter named Leah?’ ” Eisenhardt said. “I said, ‘Yes I do, but she’s OK.’ ”
The driver was an orthopedist who lived nearby. He’d been drinking since lunch, as he often did, and was on call that night, driving to work.
He was taken to the county jail, where a friend picked him up that night. He never took a blood alcohol test. He was sentenced to 200 hours of community service but never served a single hour of the time, Eisenhardt said.
Today, the outcome most likely would have been different. The same year Leah died, a California woman who also lost her daughter founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving and launched a crusade to get courts and state legislatures to take the issue seriously.
Now, the vast majority of people arrested for drunken driving are convicted, and drunken drivers who kill people are likely to spend time in prison.
But many victims and advocates say North Dakota’s laws are still too weak to curb the behavior. A handful of lawmakers will push for major changes next year, backed by those who have lost loved ones in recent crashes.
To date, those changes haven’t come easy. Some lawmakers say changing the law is no substitute for changing the culture, while others say stronger laws will lead the way to improved attitudes.
Change came slowly
A first-time drunken driver in North Dakota is likely to get a suspended 30-day jail sentence, pay $650 in fines and administrative costs, undergo mandatory chemical dependency evaluation and get a year of unsupervised probation. The fines can vary depending on the judge.
The driver’s license will also be suspended for 91 days, with the possibility of reinstatement with limited privileges after 30.
Repeat offenses bring additional charges. Five convictions in seven years brings a felony charge.
North Dakota’s escalators are among the lightest in the region. In Minnesota, the fourth DUI in 10 years is a felony. In South Dakota, it’s three in five years. In Montana, it’s four in any time frame, and the felony charge brings a mandatory 13 months served in prison.
Among the 45 states with felony DUI laws, North Dakota is the only state that takes five offenses to reach that status, according to Mother Against Drunk Driving.
A handful of North Dakota legislators say they’ll put forth tougher bills next year. Much of the momentum for change stems from a July crash outside of Jamestown in which a drunken driver killed himself and a West Fargo family of three.
Among the dead were Aaron and Allison Deutscher, and their 18-month-old daughter Brielle. The driver was Wyatt Klein, a Jamestown man with multiple prior drunk driving convictions.
Rep. Al Carlson, a Fargo Republican who is the House majority leader, said he expects changes.
“It was really brought front and center in the last few months,” Carlson said. “I think we’ll give it a thorough vetting this time.”
So does Rep. Kim Koppelman, a West Fargo Republican who has been speaking with Allison Deutscher’s father and gathering information about what changes would be most effective.
“Basically, we’re looking at best practices, what other states have done,” he said.
The Legislature hasn’t always been quick to toughen drunken driving laws. The act wasn’t even a felony in the state regardless of the number of convictions a driver accrued until 1997.
And North Dakota didn’t lower the legal blood-alcohol limit to .08 percent in 2003, when a deadline for losing millions of dollars in federal highway funding loomed.
Other proposals, like mandatory ignition interlock devices that require a sober breath test to start a car, have stalled and died.
Like many lawmakers, Carlson and Koppelman have voted for a number of DUI reforms, from establishing a felony status to lowering the legal limit to a sobriety program in which drunken drivers can be ordered to submit to regular alcohol testing.
But they’re also among those who think tougher laws are only part of the solution, and haven’t favored every proposed reform.
“Some people believe that simply by passing a tough law, everything is going to change. I don’t believe that’s true,” Koppelman said.
Sen. Judy Lee, a West Fargo Republican, said it’s difficult to legislate against offenders who are already drinking on probation or driving under a suspended license.
“What the guy did in that accident, he was already breaking the law,” she said, referring to the driver in the Deutscher crash.
Like Koppelman, she’s spoken with Allison Deutscher’s father and expects the legislature to pursue changes in the coming session.
But she said she it’s important to find the right balance between tough and practical in a state where many depend on driving.
“In a state where we don’t have a lot of public transportation anyway, we can’t take people’s cars away,” she said. “They’re going to drive anyway. We can’t take their licenses away. They’re going to drive anyway.”
Rep. Ed Gruchalla, a Fargo Democrat who has long been an advocate for tighter traffic safety laws, said he finds some of the current support for change disingenuous.
“Here are all these Johnny-come-latelies that are going to get on the bandwagon now because it’s a political year, and it really bothers me, especially when some of those people haven’t supported trying to do something about this issue in the past,” he said.
Koppelman said that’s not the case. He said he’s supported change when he thought it was a step in the right direction, but that the law has to be a good one.
It’s unfair to characterize lawmakers based on one vote, he said. To say they don’t support reform “because someone voted against a bill on issue X is a very shallow understanding of the legislative process.”
Koppelman also said that cultural changes are as important as legal ones.
“If North Dakotans don’t believe there is a serious problem when you drink and drive, no law is going to change that culture,” he said.
Gruchalla agrees, but he thinks laws can go a long way toward bringing about the long-desired change in the way North Dakotans think about drinking and driving.
“I think stiffer penalties will change societal attitudes,” he said.
He’s working on new legislation that would combine some of the toughest penalties from around the nation. Under his proposal, a first-time DUI would result in a yearlong license revocation, 30 days served in jail, and a $5,000 fine. The second in 10 years would bring a five-year revocation, six months in jail, and a $10,000 fine. The third offense would trigger a lifetime license revocation, five years in prison, and a $100,000 fine.
The law would also strongly incentive the use of ignition interlock devices, a component Mothers Against Drunk Driving supports strongly.
The penalties sound severe, Gruchalla said, but other states have parts of all of them on the books.
Other lawmakers are working on their own proposals. Sen. Tim Mathern, a Fargo Democrat, is proposing his own bill that would mark the drivers’ licenses of people convicted of DUI so they can’t buy liquor for a specified period.
Gruchalla, a former highway patrol trooper, said tweaking the laws – a slightly higher fine, a few more days in jail – is no longer enough.
“Those little incremental things that we’ve been trying to do aren’t going to change attitudes,” he said. “If we’re going to change attitudes, we need to do something bold.”
‘Not just talking’
For much of his life, Lynn Mickelson was an unlikely advocate for stricter DUI laws. By his own description, he isn’t a political person, and bears no love of rules and regulations.
But that changed this summer the night a state trooper came to his door bearing news that his daughter, Allison, granddaughter, Brielle, and son-in-law, Aaron, had been in a crash, along with the hardest words he’s ever heard: “Nobody survived.”
His initial anger at the driver, Wyatt Klein has turned to anger at a system he believes failed to keep a repeat offender off the road time and time again.
Klein had at least two prior convictions for drinking and driving, and two others for alcohol-related driving offenses.
Mickelson has spoken with Koppelman and other lawmakers and plans to travel to Bismarck with his family next year to speak before the legislature. He is pushing for tougher mandatory sentences and more steps like ignition interlock to deter or thwart repeat offenders. And he wants it to happen before the emotions of the July 6 crash fade and the state reverts to the status quo.
“Something has got to get done, not just talking about it and putting it under the table and holding it over to the next session,” he said. “It’s got to be changed now.”
It’s already too late, he said, for the Deutschers.
“I’ll never see my little granddaughter in elementary school concerts,” he said. “I won’t see her in a prom dress or a wedding dress.”
But he might see her make a difference in another way. If he gets his say, the state’s revised drunk driving statute will be known as Brielle’s Law.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502
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