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Erik Burgess, Published November 17 2013

Despite report, Ada traffic classes to continue

ADA, Minn. – The police chief and sheriff here say they will continue offering safe-driving courses in lieu of traffic tickets, despite a recent report from the state auditor that called such programs illegal.

Drivers in Norman County who face petty misdemeanor moving violations – such as speeding up to 20 mph over the limit or disobeying a traffic sign – can pay $50, sit through a one- to two-hour driver safety class, and their tickets will be dismissed.

It’s a program that locals love, said Ada Police Chief Jody Bueng. Because the violation never goes on the driver’s record, insurance companies are never the wiser, and the class is much cheaper than the typical $130 to $140 ticket.

Drivers from Ada, Twin Valley and Norman County can attend the class, but only twice in a lifetime. Bueng said to his knowledge no one has yet come in a second time.

“That tells me that it’s working,” he said.

In a recent report, State Auditor Rebecca Otto said the program is unlawful and could lead to the state losing its federal highway funding. The Minnesota Supreme Court has “in at least three cases” concluded that local governments cannot create their own traffic enforcement systems, Otto’s report stated.

“Allowing hundreds of local governments to independently decide which violations to report to the Department of Public Safety threatens the integrity of Minnesota’s driving records,” the report stated. “Accurate and complete tracking of traffic violations can help remove dangerous drivers from Minnesota’s roads.”

Otto’s report reviewed diversion programs in 15 counties, including Norman County. Clay County does not offer diversion programs, Sheriff Bill Bergquist said.

Bueng said before they instituted their program in April 2012, the county attorney and district judges signed off on it, saying it would help keep small offenses from “cluttering” the court system.

Parents with teenagers learning to drive appreciate the program, too, Bueng said, because it gives young drivers a second chance to learn from their mistakes.

Norman County Sheriff Jeremy Thornton said education is the primary goal of the program.

“We want to keep our roads safe and educate the people instead of penalizing them with fines,” he said.

In her report, Otto said the majority of counties and cities that offer diversion programs are not forwarding legally required surcharges to the state.

Since 1999, the Legislature has imposed a surcharge on anyone convicted of anything from a petty misdemeanor up to a felony, not including parking violations. Since 2009, that fee has been $75, the auditor’s report said.

Otto said the Legislature has twice stated those fees apply to violators who attend diversion classes, but according to her report, only Coon Rapids and Red Wing were abiding.

“The fines do not end up where the Legislature intended,” the report stated. Typically, those surcharges go to the state’s general fund, and are used for training law enforcement and Department of Natural Resources officers.

Thornton said the Norman County diversion program keeps money local, where it is needed most. If he writes someone a typical $125 speeding ticket, all of it goes to the state, he said.

“What it boils down to, in my opinion, is that the state thinks that we should be collecting money for them and giving them money,” Thornton said.

In Ada, money from the courses can only be used for traffic enforcement equipment or training, Bueng said. He recently used it to update his patrol’s in-field Breathalyzer units.

“In Minnesota here, we lost a lot of Local Government Aid, and a lot of places where budgets have been cut have been equipment and training,” Bueng said. “The money goes to a good place.”

Bueng said he’s concerned the Legislature might start taking a cut from the diversion programs or may more stringently enforce the surcharges, meaning costs for the program would go up and people would stop taking the classes because they would no longer be cheaper than a ticket.

Otto said in her report it’s up to the Legislature to act.

James Brue, the Norman County attorney, said he and the judges in Norman County support the program. He believes the state might just want counties and cities to keep better records of the diversion program and make the courses more efficient.

“As recently as (Wednesday), judges ordered people to do it instead of getting a traffic conviction,” Brue said. “So I think at this point we’re just in a wait-and-see (mode).”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518