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Fargo can't exceed state traffic fines

FARGO -- The North Dakota Supreme Court has put the brakes on the city of Fargo's practice of setting higher speeding fines than provided under state law.

Tuesday's unanimous high-court decision came in the case of a woman who is challenging higher traffic fines in Fargo, which had relied on its authority as a home rule city to exceed state fines.

That justification was rejected in a ruling that has ramifications for other North Dakota cities that have used their home rule charters to levy stiffer fines.

West Fargo was quick to react, and immediately reverted to lower state fines for traffic violations. Fargo police were awaiting guidance from lawyers.

The case, filed by Stephanie Sauby in U.S. District Court in Fargo, remains pending. To guide his decisions, the federal trial judge had asked the North Dakota Supreme Court to decide whether Fargo could impose the higher fines under its home rule charter.

The Supreme Court rejected Fargo's argument, which relied on opinions by attorneys generals supporting the ability of cities with home rule authority to impose stiffer fines.

But those interpretations were in conflict with a state law that explicitly prohibits cities from exceeding penalties for crimes under state law.

The case has been closely watched because of its implications for cities' home rule charters - and because Sauby is seeking class-action status in challenging Fargo's higher fines.

If granted, and if the federal judge agrees with Sauby, the door could be open to liability, potentially totaling millions of dollars in returned fines for drivers paying traffic fines after August 2001.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, who was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday's ruling, has said the city could lose as much as $8 million.

"Obviously we're pleased with the ruling," said Tim Purdon, a Bismarck lawyer representing Sauby, a self-employed day-care provider from West Fargo. "I think the ruling today reinforces the principle that no one is above the law."

Mike Miller, a lawyer representing the city of Fargo, said the decision applies only to criminal and non-criminal penalties, and therefore does not significantly undermine home-rule charter authority.

Aaron Birst, legal council for the North Dakota Association of Counties, agrees home-rule authority wasn't dealt a major setback by the decision.

"The Supreme Court really relied on a state law that appears to have trumped that particular fine structure," Birst said. "I don't think you can read the opinion as a real shot against home rule."

It wasn't clear Tuesday how many North Dakota cities use home rule charter authority to impose traffic fines exceeding those under state law, but about 100 cities have adopted home rule. For that reason, the Sauby case was closely watched by cities statewide.

"It's obviously disappointing," said Connie Sprynczynatyk, executive director of the North Dakota League of Cities. "The home rule cities that have had these higher traffic fines have done so because it's easily recognized that within a concentrated area, the North Dakota state fines are too low to be a deterrent."

Sprynczynatyk said only a few cities in the state have higher fines than the state schedule. Now she expects they'll revert to state fines.

"We'll have an interesting discussion next legislative session," Sprynczynatyk said.

U.S. District Judge Rodney Webb now will have to decide whether Sauby's case will proceed in federal court as a class action.

"Round one is done," Miller said. "The city of Fargo did not win that round, but we're a long way from the end of the game."

The Forum and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.