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Legislative committee to revisit DUI law

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota legislators will take another look at the state's DUI law just a few months after it went into effect.

The interim Judiciary Committee will begin holding meetings in the coming months to review a few aspects of the law, including a new provision making refusal to submit to a chemical test a criminal offense and how the bill affects the 24/7 Sobriety Program and the state's drug court.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, sent a letter Monday to the chairman of the interim Judiciary Committee, Sen. David Hogue, directing the committee to take up the DUI law. Holmberg is chairman of the North Dakota Legislative Management Committee.

Hogue, R-Minot, said he's heard from attorneys that drivers could be charged for refusing a chemical test, and later charged at the police station if they fail the test for drunken driving.

"I'm hearing from defense lawyers and a prosecutor that that's a totally separate offense," Hogue said. "So the question is did we intend to have that one incident where you were out driving constitute two separate criminal offenses?"

Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed the DUI legislation into law in April. The law increases fines for first-time offenders and creates an aggravated first offense if an offender's blood-alcohol content is above 0.16 percent, resulting in a $750 fine and at least two days in jail. The law also increases punishment for subsequent convictions.

Repeat offenders must also participate in the 24/7 Sobriety Program, in which their blood-alcohol content is tested daily or electronically monitored. How law enforcement tracks those in the program when they leave the state is another question that has been raised, Hogue said.

"I think some of the prosecutors and law enforcement would like additional guidance," Hogue said.

Chad McCabe, a defense attorney based in Bismarck, said the new law only references the state's drug court, a court-supervised treatment program, and doesn't include language making it an option for reducing DUI-related sentences.

"They could still go to drug court, but they would still have to do the mandatory jail sentences," McCabe said. "So what's the point?"

Holmberg's letter to Hogue also directs the judiciary committee to study how the bill affects the drug court option for DUI offenders.

The committee will hold several meetings on the law, Hogue said, and present its findings to the Legislature when it convenes in January 2015. He wasn't sure when the committee would begin discussing the law, but said that could happen before January.

Holmberg said the potential issues with the law don't "strike at the heart of ratcheting up the penalties for drunk driving.

"It just demonstrates that whenever you have a major change in law, you might have some unintended consequences or tweaking around the edges to make it better."