« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Published December 18 2012

Tougher North Dakota DUI law a tough sell?

WEST FARGO - The governor supports a stricter drunken driving law. The attorney general does, too. And the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Kim Koppelman, of West Fargo, plans to introduce the bill that would make North Dakota the 16th state to impose mandatory jail time on first-time DUI offenders.

But even with prominent state Republicans backing the bill when the GOP-controlled Legislature convenes next month, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem predicts it will be a tough sell.

“Make no mistake about it. This is a tough bill, and this is one that is not going to be an easy one to get passed, because I think too many people in North Dakota think that you’re entitled to one free bite at a DUI, that subsequent offenses aren’t all that serious and that this isn’t a problem that we need to really, truly address on a serious level here in the North Dakota,” he said.

Flanked by photos of a West Fargo family killed by a drunk driver in July, Stenehjem and Gov. Jack Dalrymple joined Koppelman on Tuesday to announce the proposed legislation, which Dalrymple said will do a better job of deterring impaired driving and keeping repeat offenders off the road.

A first-time offender convicted of Class B misdemeanor DUI would receive a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 days in jail, of which they would have to serve at least four days.

“That will make a huge difference, we believe,” Koppelman said at West Fargo City Hall, where dozens of law enforcement officers gathered in a show of support for stricter DUI laws.

‘Very, very important’

Koppelman said he consulted with law enforcement officials, prosecutors and others, and the result is a bill that “is not only tough, but which also gets to the crux of the problem: keeping those who drink and drive off the road.

“This tough legislation is responsible, it’s reasonable and I believe it can work. It takes a balanced approach to the problem of drinking and driving in North Dakota,” he said.

With lawmakers set to convene in January, Dalrymple said officials consider drinking and driving a “very, very important policy issue.”

Last year, 148 people died on North Dakota roadways, and alcohol was involved in 47 percent of the accidents, he said, citing state Department of Transportation statistics. So far this year, 158 people have died in North Dakota traffic accidents, and alcohol was involved in about 53 percent of those.

Law enforcement officers arrested about 6,600 people for DUI in 2011, a 53 percent increase over 2001, Dalrymple noted.

“We cannot allow more and more lives to be lost, and lives irreparably harmed, by drivers impaired by alcohol or by drugs,” he said.

‘Brielle’s law’

Koppelman’s proposal follows calls for stiffer DUI penalties after a wrong-way crash on Interstate 94 in July that killed West Fargo residents Allison and Aaron Deutscher and their 18-month-old daughter, Brielle. The family was killed when a pickup truck driven by Wyatt Klein of Jamestown collided with the family’s SUV west of Jamestown.

Klein, who also died in the wreck, had a blood-alcohol content of 0.25 percent, three times the legal limit for driving.

Allison Deutscher’s father, Lynn Mickelson, spoke at Tuesday’s press conference with enlarged photos of his daughter’s family and Brielle displayed on each side of him. He called the proposal “very, very encouraging” and said he’s hopeful lawmakers will see it through.

“I’m real satisfied with what I see in the bill and I hope for the best,” he said.

Koppelman said he believes there will be pressure from people who feel the bill doesn’t go far enough and from those who think it overreaches. He said he’s also heard from people who said the Deutscher tragedy made them think that change is needed.

“I’m hearing that from more people than I ever heard before,” he said.

Koppelman said that while state laws are traditionally assigned numbers but not a name, “For many of us, in our hearts and minds, this will always be Brielle’s Law.”

Mandating sobriety

In addition to mandatory jail time, another key component of the bill would require a minimum of six months of participation in the 24/7 sobriety monitoring program for first-time offenders and one year of participation for second- and third-time offenders.

The program requires offenders to report twice a day to a law enforcement center and blow into a tube to prove they’re sober. Those who can’t make the trip would wear an ankle bracelet to monitor their sobriety in real time.

Stenehjem said his office initiated the 24/7 program about five years ago. It’s currently used for second-time DUI offenders while they’re out on bail.

The proposed bill would expand the program to make it a mandatory part of sentencing at all DUI offense levels. Too many offenders whose licenses have been suspended or revoked continue to drive, Stenehjem said.

“And so what we really need to tell people is if you continue to drink and drive, we’re going to stop you from drinking … because we can do that. We have the technology,” he said.

Not far enough?

Stenehjem said one-third of the 6,600 arrested for DUI last year were repeat offenders, and the proposed law would extend the time period in which previous DUI offenses are included for enhanced penalties.

For example, current law makes a third offense within five years a Class A misdemeanor. Under the proposed law, a third offense within 10 years would be a felony, and a fourth offense would be a felony regardless of how many years have passed.

Suspected drunken drivers who refuse to submit to a blood test under the state’s implied consent law would be subjected to criminal penalties equivalent to if they were convicted of the DUI, Stenehjem said.

The law also increases minimum DUI fines from $250 to $750 for a first offense, $250 to $1,500 for a second offense, $500 to $2,000 for a third offense and $1,000 to $2,000 for a fourth offense.

A Fargo Democrat who also plans to introduce a stricter DUI law said that while he likes some of Koppelman’s bill, the fine increases don’t go far enough to create a deterrent, particularly for first-time offenders.

Rep. Ed Gruchalla, who has sought in recent legislative sessions to toughen DUI penalties, said his proposal calls for first-time DUI offenders to receive a yearlong license revocation, 30 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. A second offense in 10 years would bring a five-year revocation, six months in jail and a $10,000 fine, and a third offense would mean a lifetime license revocation, five years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

“So these wouldn’t put us in the highest in the nation, but it would put us very close to the top,” he said.

The bill from Gruchalla, a former state trooper, also would provide strong incentives for the use of ignition interlock devices, which isn’t in Koppelman’s bill.

“We don’t care if a person drinks, just so he doesn’t drink and drive, so the interlocks prevent him from doing that,” Gruchalla said.

Stenehjem said interlock devices, which require the driver to blow into the device and prevent the car from starting if they’ve been drinking, are a “fine tool” already available to police and the courts.

“But I often think those interlock devices keep the car from drinking, and what we really need to do is keep the offender from drinking,” he said.

Gruchalla said he believes Koppelman’s bill will pass.

“The problem I have is I’m not sure it will create a deterrent,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528