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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published February 27 2013

North Dakota House passes stiffer DUI penalties

BISMARCK – Despite concerns that amendments would “seriously compromise” a bill to get tough on drinking and driving in North Dakota, lawmakers in the House approved the bill Wednesday.

The House sent House Bill 1302 to the Senate by a 80-14 vote Wednesday.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said North Dakota has a culture that tolerates drunken driving.

“The problem is reaching epidemic proportions,” he said on the House floor.

He noted his commitment to deal with the problem, and propose the bill, was prompted by the death of Aaron and Allison Deutscher, of West Fargo, and their 18-month-old daughter, Brielle. The family was killed in July when their vehicle was hit by a drunken driver headed the wrong way on Interstate 94 west of Jamestown.

But Wednesday’s floor debate primarily focused on amendments that were made to the bill Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill originally called for four days of mandatory jail time for the first offense if an offender’s blood alcohol content was more than 0.15 percent.

The committee increased the original threshold from 0.15 to 0.21 and lowered the bill’s original minimum sentence for a first time offender to one day.

The parents of Aaron Deutscher, Tom and Arlene Deutscher, have continued to lobby the state Legislature to strengthen the state’s DUI laws. After hearing about the amendments, the two told the House body late Wednesday night in an email that the amendments “seriously compromise the intent of the original legislation.”

“We can’t begin to make a difference if we don’t approach this aggressively,” the email said.

The Deutschers support the bill and said Wednesday afternoon they are glad it passed, but would have liked to see a stronger mandatory sentence for someone with a 0.15 BAC.

“If we don’t get aggressive right away, I don’t think we ever will,” Tom Deutscher said after the vote. “If we are going to address this issue, you don’t do it softly.”

Committee member, Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, said the amendments were placed into the bill to address the potential costs cities and counties would have with the stronger penalties. He said counties are concerned they don’t have enough jail space if mandatory sentences are imposed.

The North Dakota Association of Counties, using data from district courts, prosecutors and sheriffs, looked at the fiscal impact the bill would have on 4,000 cases per year – using the 3,500 district court cases over the past two years as a base number.

With a four-day mandatory jail sentence, at $70 per day, the bill would cost counties $2.24 million over the next biennium.

The state’s share of costs would be about $8.6 million for the next biennium and $22.7 million impact for the 2015-17 biennium.

Deutscher said money shouldn’t be an issue because state government is flush with cash because of the oil boom and the overcrowding issues would only be temporary.

“There is a money issue, but we are already paying for it; the families and victims are paying with lives,” he said. “There’s kind of a trade-off. I’d rather pay it upfront than afterwards.”

After more than a 30-minute discussion on the bill, Rep. Chuck Damschen, R-Hampden, said the floor discussion generated more excuses not to punish a drunken driver. He said the problem isn’t going away because the Legislature doesn’t want to deal with the issues.

“If you’re not disciplining a child because it’s inconvenient or have a crying child, you end up with a spoiled kid,” he told the House.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said the amendment leaves a gaping window.

“What message are we sending here, if you have a BAC just under three times the limit, and it is not enough to have stiffer penalties?”

If the Senate passes the bill, offenders would be required to pay a penalty and spend time in jail. Currently, there are no mandatory penalties.

A driver with an alcohol concentration of at least 0.08, up to 0.20, must receive a fine of at least $500 and an order for an addiction evaluation by an appropriate licensed addiction treatment program.

If the alcohol concentration is at least 0.21, or if the individual refuses to submit to a chemical test, the sentence must include at least 10 days in jail and a $700 fine, up from $250. It also would include at least six months’ probation and participation in the 24-7 sobriety program. A judge can suspend or change the sentence, but the bill requires 48 hours must be served consecutively.

If the court sentences an individual to custody, the department can place the individual in an alcohol treatment program designated by the department. After successful completion of the program, the department can release the individual from jail to serve the remainder of the sentence on probation.

Like a first offense, other subsequent offenses within 10 years of the first carry a requirement to participate in the state’s 24-7 sobriety program and probation.

A second offense carries a minimum 60-day jail sentence, $1,000 fine and 12 months of probation. A third offense is 180 days of jail time and a $2,000 fine. A fourth or subsequent offense carries a minimum one-year jail sentence, $3,000 fine and two years of probation.

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Reach Jerke at tjerke@forumcomm.com or (701)-255-0567