The Byrd's Nest: Are we really too drunk to jail?
Earlier this week while watching my 10-month-old son playing with his toys on our living room floor, I tried to imagine what life would be like if he were suddenly gone. I imagined waking up in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors and nurses doing their best to tell me that my car had been struck by a drunk driver and the baby didn't make it.
Does that sound like a morbid mental exercise? What if I were to tell you that a scenario like this happens every year in the United States? And what if I were to tell you that the chances of it happening right here in North Dakota are the second greatest in the nation?
It's true, according to the statistics collected by Alcoholalert.com. Of the 105 fatal vehicle crashes in North Dakota in 2011, 48 percent of them were considered alcohol-related (meaning at least one person involved in the crash had a blood-alcohol content of 0.01). The only state to beat North Dakota was South Carolina at 51 percent -- and that state had nearly eight times the number of total fatal crashes.
Want to discuss just the legal limit for drunk driving? In 2008, the latest year for which Alcoholalert.com presented this data, North Dakota recorded 140 motor vehicle fatalities. Fifty-four of them, or 38 percent, involved a BAC of 0.08 or greater. That percentage was the fifth highest in the nation.
State Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, hit the nail on the head last month when he said North Dakota has a problem that tolerates drunk driving and "the problem is reaching epidemic proportions." This statewide issue came to the forefront Feb. 28 in a Forum News Service story titled "ND House passes stiffer DUI penalties."
At the heart of the story was House Bill 1302, Koppelman's answer to the tragic deaths of Aaron and Allison Deutscher of West Fargo, and their 18-month-old daughter, Brielle. According to the story, the family was killed in July when their vehicle was hit by a drunk driver headed the wrong way on Interstate 94 west of Jamestown.
Before we get into Koppelman's bill, let's define drunk driving. According to North Dakota Century Code, a driver is guilty of drunk driving if his or her BAC is 0.08. This level of intoxication is a nationally recognized threshold for driving impairment.
Drivinglaws.org says first-time offenders can expect a $250 minimum fine, a 91-day license suspension for a BAC of 0.17 or lower or a 108-day license suspension for a BAC of 0.18 or above, and mandatory alcohol evaluation. Jail time doesn't begin until there's a second offense, at which time the offender can expect up to five days in jail or 30 days of community service, a minimum fine of $500 and license suspension of up to one or two years depending on the BAC level.
Fines can grow to a minimum of $1,000 for convictions three and four and possible jail time increases to 60 days and 180 days, respectively. The fifth conviction warrants a Class C felony, a maximum fine of $5,000 and maximum jail time of five years.
Koppelman proposed a mandatory jail sentence of four days for a first offender with a BAC of 0.15, but a House committee amended the bill to increase the threshold to 0.21 -- nearly three times the legal limit of intoxication -- and wanted to reduce the minimum jail time to one mandatory day. Just throw 'em in the drunk tank, boys.
Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, reportedly said amendments were made because of concern among counties for potential costs of stronger penalties. "He said counties are concerned they don't have enough jail space if mandatory sentences are imposed," Forum News Service reporter TJ Jerke wrote.
Seriously, Mr. Bradenburg? Your concern is that North Dakota is too drunk to jail? Are there so many drunk drivers in this state that jailhouses will overflow with the intoxicated? And your answer is to lessen a proposed stricter penalty for a crime that has been, is and will be responsible for the vehicular homicide of innocent North Dakotans and their children?
I shudder to think.
Albeit to a lesser degree than Koppelman called for in his bill, the North Dakota House saw fit to increase penalties on drunk drivers. Up for Senate approval is a bill that increases DUI penalties so that a BAC of 0.08 to 0.20 warrants a $500 fine and an order for addiction evaluation in a treatment program. For a BAC of 0.21 or higher, the sentence must include 10 days in jail, a $750 minimum fine and at least six months probation. A judge could suspend or change the sentence, but at least 48 hours of jail time must be served consecutively.
A second offense would carry a minimum 60-day jail sentence (which requires an absolute minimum that 48 hours be served consecutively), a third offense requires 180-days in jail, and a fourth or subsequent offense requires one year in jail. Minimum fines increase from $1,500 for a second-time offender to $3,000 for the fourth and later offenses. All sentences require participation in the state's 24/7 program and increasing levels of probation.
It's a step in the right direction, but I'll leave you with the words of Tom Deutscher, Aaron's father.
"There is a money issue, but we are already paying for it," he told lawmakers. "The families and victims are paying with lives."
Byrd is the copy editor for The Dickinson Press. Follow him on Twitter: @klarkbyrd