Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published March 11 2014
Walsh County man gets prison time for DUI under new N.D. lawGRAND FORKS - A Grand Forks judge sentenced Ronald Samdahl to serve two years in prison Tuesday because of a drunk driving law that went into effect 45 days before he was arrested.
Under the previous North Dakota law, a fifth or more driving-under-the-influence offense within seven years was considered a felony. Under that rule, Samdahl would not have qualified for a felony charge when he was arrested in September in Grand Forks County.
But under the law passed in the last legislative session and effective July 1, any fourth DUI is considered a felony, regardless of how long it’s been since the previous offenses.
Felony DUI trials are not common, said Jason McCarthy, the assistant state’s attorney for Grand Forks County who prosecuted Samdahl. But the key issue in this case was that Samdahl had a history of DUIs and registered more than twice the legal limit of blood-alcohol content for driving, McCarthy said.
It took the jury about an hour last week to decide his guilt during the one-day trial.
Despite Samdahl’s poor history of drunk driving, four of the offenses date to a two-year period 1998-2000, his attorney Robert Wood of Forest River, N.D., told Judge Kleven. He’s got a good work history and can be a “productive” citizen and is willing to follow the dictates of a treatment program, Wood said.
Samdahl, 36, has a Lisbon, N.D., address last year but grew up in Walsh County. He was arrested Sept. 15 in Grand Forks County.
In recent years he has lived in Texas, where he was convicted in 2012 of drunk driving, his sixth offense, including five in North Dakota more than a decade ago, according to statements in court.
During his sentencing hearing Tuesday, Samdahl said he had marital difficulties last year that made him “not care” before his DUI arrest. When he had several DUIs in Walsh County from 1998 to 2000, it was his brother’s untimely death from a gunshot — accident or suicide — that contributed to his drinking, Samdahl said.
State District Judge Debbie Kleven told Samdahl he was fortunate he wasn’t in court on “a manslaughter” charge for killing someone when he was driving while drunk. Kleven sentenced him to five years in prison with three years suspended during two years of supervised probation.
Wood told the Herald it was worth the risk for Samdahl to take his case to trial..
“My client wanted to have his day in court. He knew that if he pleaded guilty he was going to be sentenced to incarceration, therefore he was willing to try the case and take his chances,” Wood said.
Despite the high-scoring breath test, Samdahl may not have been drunk, Wood said. “There was very little evidence that whatever alcohol he ingested affected his mental or physical abilities. If one does not exhibit any signs of intoxication then he or she is not under the influence.“
“My position was that this (breath) test result is utterly inconsistent with all the other evidence, which showed he was not under the influence of alcohol," Wood said. "Unfortunately, people generally tend to believe these breath tests even though they do not believe they are the most reliable test for determining alcohol concentration.”
McCarthy told Kleven that Samdahl didn’t fail many of the sobriety field tests at his arrest in September because “he is a very experienced drinker” and asked her to send him to prison for two years.
Wood said Samdahl may appeal his conviction.