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Published October 06 2012

In one North Dakota county, DUI break common for first-time offenders

FORMAN, N.D. – In one part of North Dakota, drunken drivers get a break from an unexpected source: the state’s attorney responsible for prosecuting them.

Lyle Bopp, the state’s attorney in Sargent County, regularly charges first-time drunken drivers with reckless driving, not driving under the influence.

Most of the penalties are the same, including license suspension, but the impact on auto insurance premiums is reduced greatly.

In 2010 and 2011, 32 of the 51 DUI arrests in the county were charged as reckless driving.

Statewide, the rate of amended charges was closer to one in six. Most prosecutors seek amended charges only if the evidence might make it difficult to prove the case as a DUI.

Bopp said the practice is about giving a second chance to people who have made a mistake. He also thinks it’s unfair to make car insurance a burden in a rural county where public transportation isn’t an option.

“We’re in a different situation down here,” he said of the county of about 3,800 in southeast North Dakota.

“People need to get to work.”

He said he won’t amend charges for repeat offenders, drivers with other serious offenses or drivers with a high blood-alcohol level. He said 0.15 is his cutoff, though Sgt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol said it appears to be closer to 0.18.

Bopp said he started amending charges a decade ago, in part to protest cuts in Department of Transportation services in the county.

“It’s part of a stance against what they’ve done to Sargent County DOT,” he said.

He said he’s butted heads on occasion with the police and Highway Patrol, but he isn’t worried his charging decisions lessen the perception that drinking and driving is serious.

“If it sends the wrong message, I’m going to have them back here,” he said.

The Highway Patrol, for its part, says the practice is discouraging to its officers, who are trying to get drunken drivers off the road.

“If they’re out there making the arrests, and there’s proper evidence in court and the charge is automatically reduced to a reckless driving, that is something that our officers do get frustrated with,” said Iverson, the Highway Patrol’s safety and education officer.

Iverson said the patrol is aware of Bopp’s charging pattern and has had conversations with him about it in the past.

He said the patrol is worried drivers will take the issue less seriously if they know they won’t be charged to the full extent of the law.

But he said the matter is beyond the patrol’s control.

“Unfortunately, that’s the state’s attorney’s decision” he said. “We don’t want to get wrapped around trying to dictate what the state’s attorney is doing.”

Iverson said he’s not aware of any other county in the state where drunken-driving charges are amended systematically.

State’s attorneys are elected. Bopp was last elected in 2010 with about 60 percent of the vote.

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