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Dickinson puts brakes on traffic fines after N.D. Supreme Court ruling

DICKINSON - The city of Dickinson has slashed most of its traffic fines in half following a North Dakota Supreme Court ruling, said City Attorney Matt Kolling.

The ruling, which was announced Tuesday, was part of a federal lawsuit filed against Fargo by a woman who complained the city's traffic fines were too high. The court ruled that Fargo may not charge traffic fines higher than the penalties set by state law.

Dickinson also had been charging more than the state fines, so when city officials heard the court's opinion, they saw no other option than to lower the city's fines, Kolling said.

"Once the Supreme Court decision came out, we looked at it. There really isn't an authority for the city anymore to charge anything in excess of the state fee schedule," Kolling said.

As of Tuesday, the lower fines went into effect, Kolling said.

With the exception of speeding, moving violation fines are now half of what they were, said Dickinson Municipal Judge Bob Keogh. The city had been charging speeders a flat rate of $3 for every mile per hour over the limit. The city will now use the state's formula, which calls for higher fines as miles per hour over the speed limit increase.

For example, drivers caught going 45 mph in a 25-mph zone could have been fined $60 under the city's old rules, but now those drivers will be charged $25, stated charts from the city's Clerk of Court office.

Keogh said people who paid traffic tickets on Tuesday or any day thereafter pay the lower fines. The changes apply only to traffic violations, not parking tickets, Keogh said.

Dickinson and Fargo were able to raise their traffic fines because they have home-rule charters, like many other North Dakota cities. Dickinson boosted its fines to deter traffic violations, Keogh said.

"These laws are all about traffic safety in the first place. These laws are not about revenue for the city, but they were about promoting traffic safety and orderly use of the roads in ways that won't hurt people," Keogh said.

Keogh worries that the lower fines won't encourage lawful driving.

"I'm concerned about it because I think the fine is a deterrent, you know, and especially for young drivers. Young people, you know, 50, 60 dollars maybe means a lot more than it does to you and me," Keogh said. "Maybe there's some thought that it'll be cheaper to speed so we can speed, I don't know."

Measured against bordering states, North Dakota's fines are significantly less, Keogh said.

"Really the penalties in the state are so low compared to our neighboring states that when you talk about incentive to follow the law, there isn't much," he said.

Keogh predicts the state Legislature will eventually address the issue.

"The Legislature is certainly going to have to look at this, and there's certainly going to be a lot pressure on them from the cities involved," Keogh said. "They (the Legislature) have two options to do it: revise the home-rule laws or simply...raise the fees in the state, which they have been cornered about doing, considering that 20 bucks don't mean quite what it used to."

Dickinson Police Chief Chuck Rummel said he sees the lowering of fines as a step backward for the city.

"We really do believe and felt for a long time pretty strongly that the state fines were way too low, and after having conversations with the highway patrol who use the state fines in their tickets and on getting stopped--they're kind of being laughed at," Rummel said.

In 2007, Dickinson collected more than $273,000 in traffic and criminal fines. The city does not track the amount from traffic violations alone, the Clerk of Courts office said.

The cut in fines represents a drop in income for the city, said City Administrator Greg Sund.

"It's going to cost the city quite a bit," Sund said. "The cost of violators will be shifted more to the general taxpayer."

The lawsuit brought against Fargo filed by Stephanie Sauby, of West Fargo, is still in a preliminary stage and has not yet gone to trial, said Sauby's attorney, Tim Purdon. The ruling from the state Supreme Court now allows the case to proceed in federal court where it was filed, said Purdon.

"The next question will be whether or not the case will be certified as a class action," Purdon said.

The class-action suit would include people who have paid an excess fine in Fargo since August 2001, Purdon said. If the class-action lawsuit goes to trial and Fargo loses, the city would be able to appeal, he said.

Purdon said lawsuits in Dickinson and other cities that charged higher traffic fees are possible.

"Each case is different, but obviously if the case against the city of Fargo succeeds it creates precedent, you know, for suits potentially against other cities," Purdon said.

Purdon said the focus right now is on the Fargo case, but added that his firm has been getting calls from people in other cities.

"We have our case against the city of Fargo, and that's what we're concentrating on. I mean, we're obviously getting calls from people in other cities, and we're looking at those options as well," Purdon said.

Purdon said his law firm "has not been retained to pursue any case against the city of Dickinson."

Kolling noted that, in hiking the traffic fines, Dickinson and other cities did so with the support of opinions from the attorneys general.

"All of the home-rule cities that were doing this were doing it under the authority of a previous attorney general's opinions. So there is at least a claim that all of these cities are going to make that the attorney general opinions are binding law until the Supreme Court rules something differently," Kolling said.

Jerry Hjelmstad, assistant director for the North Dakota League of Cities, said very few cities had raised their traffic fines above those set by the state.

"Our guess would probably be just four or five of the largest cities," Hjelmstad said.

No counties in southwest North Dakota have home-rule charters, so none is able to raise their traffic fines, said Terry Traynor, assistant director of the North Dakota Association of Counties.

In the near future, the Dickinson City Commission plans to consider an ordinance change that would formally bring the city into compliance with the state's traffic fine schedule, Kolling said.