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Fargo reduces traffic fines; lawsuit continues

FARGO -- Here's a judicial example of what a difference a day makes: A speeder in Fargo today would be fined $15 for driving 15 mph over the speed limit.

But before the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Fargo traffic fines cannot exceed state fines, the driver would have been fined $100.

That windfall for drivers has created whiplash for Fargo's police chief and other city officials, who worry the lower fines will encourage unsafe driving.

Another worry is the possibility the ruling could extend to scores of other drivers if a case pending in federal court becomes a class action, opening the courtroom door to excessive fine challenges from other drivers.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Wednesday he is disappointed in the court's decision. Fargo relied on attorneys general opinions supporting the ability of home rule cities to impose stiffer fines.

"We were discouraged by the simplistic ruling that came out," he said.

City commissioners met for more than 45 minutes in executive session Wednesday to discuss the case, filed in federal court by Stephanie Sauby of West Fargo over what she believes are five illegally high traffic tickets she received in Fargo.

Commissioners then met briefly in public to approve a resolution setting fines at the state rate for violations such as speeding, running red lights and not wearing seat belts, effective immediately.

"I am convinced that the effect could be where driving behavior by motorists takes a step backwards," Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes said afterward.

Walaker said fines for parking tickets and offenses such as driving under the influence will not change.

Ternes and other law officers believe the state fines are simply too low to discourage drivers from speeding or breaking other traffic laws.

Steeper fines are especially important for cities, where there are more drivers and larger safety consequences for speeding than in the country, they argue.

"Ten miles over the limit in a school zone is certainly more perilous than 10 miles over on a two-lane paved county road where there isn't any traffic and there certainly aren't any pedestrians," Cass County Chief Deputy Jim Thoreson said.

West Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot also have traffic fines that exceed the state's, said Connie Sprynczynatyk, executive director of the North Dakota League of Cities.

West Fargo police began issuing fines at state rates shortly after the ruling on Tuesday, Police Chief Arland Rasmussen said.

Sprynczynatyk believes all are acting to bring their fines into compliance with Tuesday's ruling.

"It's like hitting a reset button," she said.

For Fargo, the matter is far more complicated because of the Supreme Court's ruling in the ongoing lawsuit.

Erik Johnson, Fargo city attorney, said the state Supreme Court's decision merely gives U.S. District Judge Rodney Webb guidance in deciding the lawsuit.

"It's part of an ongoing case," Johnson said. "This is just sort of the beginning."

One issue yet to be resolved is whether Sauby's case will become a class action, open to claims from other drivers who want to challenge fines they've paid to the city of Fargo that exceed state fines.

Also, if the judge rules in Sauby's favor and opens the case to other drivers, will any court-ordered refunds be retroactive? If so, the city would have to comb through municipal court records, Johnson said.

Those questions, he added, will be decided as the case proceeds in federal court.

Lawyers will meet with Webb Friday for a status conference to discuss parameters for the case.

Meanwhile, traffic fines will remain at state rates.

The 2007 North Dakota Legislature rejected a proposal to increase them, but Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, a former state trooper, said Wednesday he will make another attempt during the 2009 session.

He said the fines haven't been changed since 1956.

"The fact is, the law enforcement community is not happy," said Gruchalla, who was a trooper for 25 years.

The state's traffic fines are among the lowest in the nation and lower than neighboring states, including South Dakota and Minnesota.

Although the Supreme Court ruling is bad for cities with higher fines, it could give a boost to efforts by law enforcement officers and city officials to increase state traffic fines, Gruchalla said.

"It will definitely give some lift to this bill to raise our fine structure," he said. "Fargo fines aren't too high. It's just that the state structure is too low."

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