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Did tough DUI laws in ND work? Some officials optimistic; say it’s too soon to tell

GRAND FORKS — A year after a tougher driving-under-the-influence law went into effect in North Dakota, officials say it is still too soon to pop open the champagne and declare it a success — but they are optimistic.

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The law deals out harsher penalties to drunk and drugged-up drivers, including longer prison terms, bigger fines and a mandatory abstinence program, called the 24/7 program.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who had a hand in creating the law, said there are positive signs it is having an impact.

“It looks to me like we must be doing something right that we haven’t done before,” he said.

Stenehjem cited data from the state Department of Transportation that indicated the total number of convictions for driving under the influence in North Dakota is lower since the law took effect July 1, 2013.

From July 2013 to this past June, there were about 6,600 DUI convictions, while in the same period from 2012 to 2013, there were about 8,200.

In Grand Forks, city prosecutor Kristi Venhuizen said she has been pleasantly surprised at how few people in the 24/7 program have failed their alcohol tests.

Since the program began, about 25 percent have failed their tests at least once, though less than 2 percent have reoffended, according to Grand Forks County Corrections, which administers the program in the area.

Too soon

But Stenehjem cautioned that it is too early to gauge the effectiveness of the law and that the drop in convictions may be due to any number of factors.

The number of DUI convictions from July 2013 to June 2014 is lower than the same period 12 months before, but actually not that different from July 2010 to June 2011, in which there were 6,400 DUI convictions.

Sgt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol said he has not seen any dramatic change in DUI arrest numbers.

“I would say we’re on par for this year,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re still making a large amount of DUI arrests. ... There are still far too many people out there not abiding by the law.”

The Highway Patrol made nearly 2,000 DUI arrests last year, according to its website. As of June 23, state troopers have made about 760 DUI arrests this year.

The patrol has also reported fewer fatal crashes involving alcohol so far this year. As of July 1, there have been 10 fatal crashes that involved alcohol, or 22 percent of fatal crashes. That is compared to 64 fatal crashes involving alcohol last year, or 48 percent.

But Iverson said that number was so low because the Highway Patrol is waiting on toxicology reports and blood work to be processed. He said he expects the percentage to hit near the 50 percent mark this year.

“I don’t foresee a huge drop,” he said.

Over the past decade, fatal crashes in North Dakota have been alcohol-related about half of the time, according to the Highway Patrol.

Grand Forks police Lt. Dwight Love has not seen much change in the number of DUI arrests either.

“It’s too soon to even tell” if the law is effective, he said.

Tragic start

With roots in a drunk driving accident that killed a West Fargo family two years ago, the law, called Brielle’s Law, is named after the 18-month-old victim of that crash. In July 2012, a drunk driver three times over the legal limit was going the wrong way on Interstate 94 west of Jamestown when he collided head-on with the car carrying Aaron Deutscher, 34, his pregnant wife, Allison, 36, and baby Brielle, killing all three.

The drunk driver, Wyatt Klein of Jamestown, also was killed.

Afterward, the Deutschers’ relatives rallied for stiffer penalties for drunk drivers in the hope that what happened to their family would not happen to anyone else.

“Some say our DUI laws are strong enough and that our jails are already full. I would argue that they are not strong enough and that our cemeteries are full,” said Tom Deutscher, Aaron’s father, at a legislative committee meeting last year to discuss the proposed DUI penalties.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed the new DUI penalties into law in April 2013 with the Deutschers standing behind him.

The law raises the stakes for repeat offenders; Klein had at least four DUI convictions before the accident that killed the Deutschers and him. Under the previous law, a fifth DUI conviction within seven years was considered a felony. The new law made any fourth DUI conviction a felony regardless of when they happened.

Among other changes, the new law created a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 days for a second DUI within seven years and a new “aggravated DUI” category for first-time offenders who register 0.16 blood-alcohol content, which results in at least two days in jail and a $750 fine. First-time offenders with lower blood-alcohol content would pay a $500 fine. Previously, fines for first-time offenders were $250.

‘Kinks’ in law

But there are still some “kinks” to be worked out of the law, said Venhuizen, the Grand Forks city prosecutor.

One provision of the law allows police to arrest a driver for refusing to take a breathalyzer test.

“People are challenging that, and they’re trying to claim it’s a violation of a constitutional right,” said Venhuizen, citing the case State v. Smith before the North Dakota Supreme Court.

Judges are also scratching their heads over how to enforce the 24/7 program, she said. Under the program, participants must report twice daily for alcohol or drug testing. Judges are still unsure of how to respond when a participant fails one of those tests, she said.

Then there is the cost of the program — not to the state but to offenders. For a second DUI, an offender is required to enroll in the 24/7 program for a year. By the end of that year, the required daily alcohol tests — which run at $1 per test — carry a price tag of about $730. Not to mention the fines and fees, which add up to $1,750 for second-time offenders.

It is designed to act as a deterrent, but the cost is still a “hardship” for some people, Venhuizen said.

Optimism

But officials, like Venhuizen and Grand Forks State’s Attorney Peter Welte, believe the law is on the right track.

“I believe the modifications in the DUI statutes have been effective,” said Welte, who acknowledged the law did need “fine tuning.”

Since the law took effect, about 600 people have participated in the 24/7 program in Grand Forks, according to Grand Forks County Corrections.

Eleven of the 600 have reoffended and 99 are currently enrolled in the program. All but two of the 99 were enrolled for alcohol testing.

“I have actually been surprised at how well people have done at 24/7,” said Venhuizen, who thought more people would be failing the blow tests.

Of the 600 participants, about 150 have failed a blow test at least one time.

As to whether those 600 will think and stop before getting behind the wheel intoxicated, that is yet to be seen.

“Over time we will start seeing the impact out on our roadways,” said the Highway Patrol’s Iverson. “It gets aggressive about our problem of drinking and driving,” he said of the new law.

April Baumgarten
April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, as the news editor. She works with a team of talented journalists and editors, who strive to give the Grand Forks area the quality news readers deserve to know. Baumgarten grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college,  she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.   
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