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Published October 06 2012

The lucky ones: Of many charged with alcohol-related offenses in Cass County in September, none had fatal crashes

Deadly decisions

The Forum is devoting a four-part series to the issue of drunken driving in North Dakota.

Friday: The extent of the problem

Saturday: Laws and lawmakers

Today: A look at offenders

Monday: Survivors and victims work for change

FARGO - Jason Spiess is thankful he only hit a tree.

It was a week before Christmas in 2006. Spiess, a publisher and media personality, was coming from a friendly business meeting in downtown Fargo where he’d had two beers and three shots in the course of three to four hours. Then he tried to drive home.

It wasn’t the first time he’d driven home after a few drinks. He’d done it when he was younger and never thought much of it. He’d never had a problem, and he’d never gotten caught.

It was 8:30 p.m. – not yet peak hours for drunken driving, which picks up sharply after midnight. As Spiess drove down Eighth Street, his foot slipped on the pedals. He tried to brake, but instead accelerated, veered from the road and struck a tree.

As soon as it happened, he knew he was in trouble.

“I was freaking out,” he said. “I knew I was drinking.”

He was traveling about 25 miles an hour – not fast enough to damage the tree, but fast enough to trigger the airbags and bang up the front of his car. His judgment impaired, he tried to drive away.

A woman had phoned the police after witnessing the crash. A short while later, on University Drive, Spiess was pulled over, arrested and taken to jail.

His first thought was, “how am I going to explain this to my family?”

Later, another thought crossed his mind that still resonates to this day: “That could’ve been a family. That could’ve been a car. That could’ve been a kid.”

A crime without intent

Many people arrested for drunken driving in North Dakota are not much like Spiess. There are repeat offenders with other criminal convictions. There are alcoholics who can’t stop drinking and won’t stop driving. There are people who struggle with drugs as well as alcohol.

But many, many others are not so different: ordinary, otherwise law-abiding citizens who made a big mistake.

More than three-quarters of the people arrested for DUI in North Dakota are men. The biggest single cohort is 25 to 29 years old, but more than half of arrests are people over 30. Spiess was 32.

About 6 percent of arrests are people too young to drink legally. A few dozen are minors.

Of the 6,600 North Dakota DUI arrests made last year, 1,871 were repeat offenders. More than 500 had done it more than once before.

A visit to one of Fargo’s victim impact panels, where offenders must listen to the stories of DUI crash survivors and family members who have lost loved ones, turns up a broad cross-section of people, from college students to housewives to gray-haired men.

“I represent a lot of really good people who find themselves in an unfortunate situation,” said Mark Friese, a lawyer with Vogel Law Firm in Fargo.

Friese estimates that drunken driving makes up 40 percent of his caseload. He said his clients are often white-collar professionals with no prior criminal history.

They’re most often embarrassed and shocked when they come to him for consultation, he said.

Friese, who used to be a police officer in Bismarck, said DUI is a unique crime because it requires no ill intent – people don’t think about it beforehand and are in no condition to make good decisions by the time they do it.

“Because there’s not a criminal intent requirement, lots of good people find themselves committing crimes,” he said.

Clint Morgenstern, a Grand Forks-based attorney with Omdahl & Morgenstern, used to be a police officer, too. As many as half of his cases are DUIs.

He wishes business in that department were a lot slower.

“I would much prefer that not be such a heavy caseload,” he said. “I’m also driving on the same roads as these people are.”

Morgenstern used to work in Washington state, and has been surprised by how accepting North Dakotans seem to be of drinking and driving.

“It’s almost a rite for some people,” he said.

He said his clients’ reactions range from mad they got caught to genuinely humbled. He hopes the bad taste sticks with them.

“Those are all bad feelings like that, but in a lot of ways, people like that are lucky to be alive,” he said.

A mother’s nightmare

Even the lucky drunken drivers – the ones who don’t crash or cause injury – have plenty of ways to hurt others.

Charmaine Jacobs of Jamestown knows better than most. She is raising her three grandchildren herself because, she said, her adult son is an alcoholic and a danger to them.

She said he has at least two DUIs. He’s driven drunk and wound up in a ditch with the children in the car. He’s been fined multiple times, but those haven’t deterred him. Some are still unpaid more than a decade later.

Jacobs dreads the phone call telling her he’s driven drunk and killed someone, or himself. She has lobbied her state senator for law changes that make deterrence and treatment more effective.

“It’s not working,” she said.

She’d rather her son go to jail than continue to drive drunk.

“I cannot be the only mother that would rather see her son locked up than kill someone,” she said.

A call he can’t forget

Friese tells people not to spend money on a lawyer if they’re going to plead guilty because it won’t make a difference. If the facts of the case are unusual or there’s reason to suspect improper procedure or conduct, he might be able to fight the charges and reduce the penalties.

Jason Spiess hired a lawyer but ultimately pleaded guilty. The conviction had far-reaching consequences.

From jail, he had to call his girlfriend, who was out of town with their infant son, not only to break the news but to ask her to call someone else to get him out.

“When you have to call somebody from jail, that is a value-changing moment,” he said.

As a relatively well-known public figure, he went through a media circus in the days following the arrest. He had to explain the incident to a half-dozen community boards and committees on which he sat.

He had to be driven around for a month because he lost his license. He paid a total of $770 in fines and fees, and much more than that in insurance costs.

Then there were the phone calls from friends and relatives. Many were supportive – his brother, for instance, was among the group that bailed him out of jail.

Others berated him for his decisions and said the arrest spoke to his failings as a father. The judgment from the church community was particularly severe, he said. Some people still won’t talk to him to this day.

“You have the scarlet letter,” he said. “For the rest of my life, I’m a guy that’s gotten a DUI.”

Spiess has moved on now. He lives in Dickinson with his family, where he runs a food truck and broadcasts a radio show. But the DUI conviction stills weighs on his mind.

He’s vigilant whenever he drinks, knowing a second conviction would bring serious consequences. Whenever he does something that could require a background check, like becoming a troop leader for his son’s Cub Scout group, he knows he might have to explain himself.

He supports law changes or anything else that would curb drunken driving. He remembers how quickly his jail cell filled up the night he was arrested. When he fell asleep, there were perhaps two others in there with him. When he woke up, there were 17 or 18.

“It’s a problem, and the current thought process isn’t working,” he said. “Most people are like me with a little bit of a god complex that thinks after three or four drinks, I’m fine to drive, and you’re not.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502