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By TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published March 14 2013

Gruchalla says $500 DUI fine not enough

BISMARCK – A former highway patrolman turned legislator sees a big difference in the effect of a $5,000 fine over a $500 fine for drinking and driving.

Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, said Thursday that he’s not pleased with the amendments added to Senate Bill 2240 that decreased the bill’s $5,000 mandatory fine for a first-time DUI offense down to $500. The current fine for a first-time DUI offense is $250.

Gruchalla, a co-sponsor of the bill, has been pushing stiffer penalties for first-time DUI offenders, an idea some think will deter many from drinking and driving.

He said two-thirds of all DUI offenses are from first-time offenders. Increasing the penalties for a first offense would help deter someone from drinking and driving.

“People say it’s a societal problem. If we’re going to make a difference in society, we’re going to have to put up a firewall and put up a strict penalty up front,” said Gruchalla, who still supports parts of the bill.

While the amendments reduced the fines, they added mandatory jail time.

Russell Myhre, an attorney from Valley City, and lobbyist for the North Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said minimum mandatory sentences would only cause problems and incur high costs for the state.

“They create a one-size-fits-all type of justice,” he said. “Let the punishment fit the crime.”

He also noted the high costs that may occur. “If we do not act wisely, and just react, it may cost taxpayers an awful lot of money,” he said.

According to the Department of Transportation, the bill may have a financial impact on local jurisdictions, however there is no way to determine what the impact may be. Some say the proposed laws would increase the number of court cases around the state.

The Senate amendments also would make the penalty for refusing a blood test after being pulled over equivalent to a first-time DUI penalty and also send a convicted DUI offender to jail for at least two years if they kill someone.

“If you’re drunk, you’re playing Russian roulette with somebody else, if you lose, this is intended to be a punishment,” said Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson. “The bill says, here’s the deal, if your actions cause the death of somebody else, we don’t care why, you’re going to go to jail for two years.”

The bill would require an officer to inform the individual that it’s a crime to refuse a screening test to determine whether the individual is under the influence of alcohol. If they refuse, the penalty is a revocation of their license for at least 180 days and up to four years.

The amendments also changed the original bill’s emphasis to use ignition interlock systems, which require an individual to use a breathalyzer test before driving, to using ankle bracelets that monitor alcohol intake. The use of either idea is intended to monitor the individuals following a DUI conviction.

The bill would require a $1.2 million appropriation for the attorney general’s office during the 2013-15 biennium for alcohol monitoring bracelets. But the revenues generated from the purchase and maintenance of the bracelets by DUI offenders could total $5.1 million, but the bill doesn’t say where the money goes.

The punishments laid out by the bill are:

•First offense: Class B misdemeanor, faced with a mandatory $500 fine. If the individual has at least 0.18 percent blood alcohol content reading within two hours of driving, the sentence must include at least two days in jail or 24 hours of community service. Current law has no minimum sentence, but a 30-day maximum and a 91-day suspension of license if less than 0.18 BAC – more than a 0.18 BAC would be 180 days suspension.

•Second and third offense: Class A misdemeanor within seven years of the first. The penalty would be 10 days jail time, $1,000 fine and at least 12 months in the 24/7 sobriety program. Currently, for a second offense, it’s a five-day jail sentence and $500 fine.

•Fourth or subsequent offense: Class C felony, faced with a minimum 120 days in jail, $2,000 fine, at least two years of supervised probation and mandatory 24-7 program participation. Current law is 180 days minimum jail sentence and $1,000 fine.