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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published April 10 2013

ND Senate clears bill to strengthen DUI penalties

BISMARCK – Penalties for drunken driving may soon be ramped up.

The Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed House Bill 1302, which significantly enhances the penalties, provides funding for education on the effects of binge drinking and incentivizes sobriety, said Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson.

The bill will go to the House, which would have to agree to the Senate’s changes before heading to Gov. Jack Dalrymple for his signature. But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kim Koppelman, said it will be sent to a conference committee to hash out the changes.

Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said Wednesday after the vote that he had glanced through the amended bill and agreed with some of the changes, but not all of them.

“I can’t predict what it will look like,” he said. “But I want to see the toughest DUI bill that can pass. To beat our chest and say this is great doesn’t do anything if we can’t pass it.”

Koppelman, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, will help decide whether the House should agree to the changes since the bill was heard in his committee.

Both versions of the bill include similar classifications for DUI charges but vary in terms of penalties.

The current version passed by the Senate maintains a first offense as a Class B misdemeanor, carrying a penalty that would increase from $250 to $500 and a mandatory two-day jail sentence or 20 hours of community service if a driver’s blood-alcohol content is over 0.18. If a driver refuses to submit to a chemical test, he or she is guilty of a DUI.

The House version also would make drunken driving a Class B misdemeanor for the first offense. If a driver had a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 to 0.21, there would be a mandatory $500 fine and addiction evaluation. If the level is over 0.21, or the driver does not comply with a blood test, the offender would receive at least 10 days in jail – of which 48 hours must be served consecutively. The driver also would receive a $750 fine – up from $250 – addiction evaluation, at least six months probation and participation in the 24/7 sobriety program.

The Senate proposal would bump a second offense from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A, carrying a $1,000 fine, one-year participation in the 24/7 alcohol program and 10 days in jail, an increase of five days.

The House version also made a second offense a Class A misdemeanor, carrying 60 days in jail, a $1,500 fine, addiction evaluation, at least 12 months of probation and participation in the 24/7 sobriety program.

The Senate bill also would create new felonies to address harming an individual: criminal vehicular homicide, criminal vehicular injury and making a fourth DUI offense a felony.

The Senate plan would make killing someone a Class A felony with a three-year minimum sentence upon a first offense and a 10-year minimum mandatory for a second offense.

The House version included one-year jail sentence if a driver caused an injury or death while drunk.

The legislation is aimed at addressing a culture of drinking and driving that many lawmakers say North Dakota has.

The incentive to stay sober, and keep convicted drivers off the road, comes with the request for $1.2 million to purchase SCRAM bracelets, which are attached to a person’s ankle and monitors alcohol consumption, and added requirements to participate in the state’s 24/7 sober monitoring program.

“Not only are we going to throw you in jail for more time, but we are going to make you stay sober for one calendar year,” Armstrong said. Using 2012 data, Armstrong said, the 24/7 program can expect about 2,500 people, who will be under the supervision of the state’s attorney general or local law enforcement.

Those opposed to the bill argue that it doesn’t do enough to address first-time offenders, who make up two-thirds of all drunken drivers. The Legislature already has killed a Senate proposal to increase the DUI penalties.