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Dave Olson, Published March 29 2013

North Dakota House kills DUI bill

FARGO – The North Dakota House has killed one of two bills aimed at toughening DUI penalties in the wake of high-profile fatal crashes, including one last summer near Jamestown.

Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, a former state trooper and co-sponsor of Senate Bill 2240, said he was disappointed with the defeat of the bill, adding that the version killed by the House was a severely watered-down take of the one originally introduced.

Gruchalla said the remaining DUI bill, House Bill 1302, which was sponsored by Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, also has been severely watered down by the amendment process.

SB 2240 originally called for a mandatory $5,000 fine and several weeks in jail for first-time offenders, Gruchalla said.

He said the version of the bill that was defeated 63-28 on Friday had been amended to carry a $500 fine and no mandatory jail time for first-time offenders.

The bill also would have required mandatory participation in the so-called 24/7 sobriety program. The program requires offenders to report twice a day to a law enforcement center and blow into a device to show they are sober.

The remaining DUI bill, Koppelman’s HB 1302, originally called for a mandatory $750 fine and at least four days in jail for a first offense.

Gruchalla said that via the amendment process,

HB 1302 now looks similar to what SB 2240 looked like when it was killed.

He said HB 1302 now must go to a conference committee before it is voted on.

Gruchalla feels the state’s DUI laws need to be changed to make it more difficult for first-time offenders.

“Two-thirds of the people arrested for drunk driving are first-time offenders,” he said.

“You have to cut it (drunken driving) off at the pass,” Gruchalla said. “We’re not going to do that if we just slap their fingers on the first offense, like we’ve been doing. That doesn’t work.”

He said that after both bills underwent changes that reduced their penalties, he was contacted by relatives of family members killed in alcohol-related crashes, including in a wrong-way crash last July on Interstate 94 that was caused by a drunken driver.

“They are not happy,” Gruchalla said. “They wanted to put some stiff penalties up front to try to deter this drunk driving.”

The July interstate crash killed West Fargo residents Allison and Aaron Deutscher and their 18-month-old daughter, Brielle.

They were killed when a pickup driven by Wyatt Klein, of Jamestown, collided with the family’s SUV west of Jamestown.

Lynn Mickelson, Allison Deutscher’s father, said Friday he was hopeful the remaining DUI bill, known as “Brielle’s Law,” in memory of his granddaughter, will pass.

He is disappointed there may be little left in the bill to scare would-be drunken drivers.

“What we wanted was to have deterrents in there to make people realize you can’t be doing this … not so much as a penalty, but have a deterrent to make them realize this isn’t worth it.” Mickelson said.

While he said he would have preferred to see stiffer fines and mandatory jail time included in the bill, those things can be pursued in future legislative sessions.

“It’s a very good start,” he said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555. Some information in this story was provided by the Associated Press.