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Crash wreckage adds visuals to DUI dilemma

BISMARCK -- As North Dakota lawmakers walked in and out of the Capitol on Wednesday, they were reminded of what drinking and driving can do.

Sitting by the west entrance doors was the 2009 Subaru Forester that Aaron and Allison Deutscher of West Fargo were driving west of Jamestown on July 6 when they were hit and killed by a drunken driver.

As legislators walked into the building, a photo of the Deutschers 18-month-old daughter, Brielle, who also died, stared at them near a white banner that read, "Nine beers + three tequilas + 2 ½ hours = five deaths including an unborn baby," referring to the driver that killed the family and died himself after heading the wrong way on Interstate 94.

As lawmakers made their way upstairs to their respective chamber, they saw Juan Ruiz and Sandy Hernandez standing in the great hall with photos of their two boys, Cyris and Alaries, who were run over and killed by a drunk driver as they slept in a tent while camping at Lake Metigoshe on July 7.

The Deutscher's vehicle along with Ruiz and Hernandez were at the Capitol during Law Day to put a face on the victims of drunken driving as the state Legislature looks to discuss and possibly create stricter penalties for driving under the influence.

Ruiz said they simply want "change."

"What's at hand right now is not enough," he said.

He said stiffer punishments, higher fines, more awareness about the issues and an increase in accountability of drivers is needed to address the current problems.

Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, chairs the House Judiciary Committee that will hear proposed DUI legislation.

Koppelman was the first to file a DUI-related bill this session that would increase penalties for first-time DUI offenders by requiring a mandatory four days jail time and tripling the monetary fine. Current law only requires a $250 fine and most receive a suspended jail sentence.

Koppelman said he met Ruiz and Hernandez for the first time Wednesday and said he appreciated their approach to providing information about the impacts drunken diving has.

"(Juan) really hopes to make a difference and hopes the Legislature can too," Koppelman said.

Rep. Lois Delmore, D-Grand Forks who sits on the House Judiciary committee, co-sponsored Koppelman's bill. She said she needs more information from other states with tougher DUI laws to see if increasing the penalties for a first offense cuts down on the amount of occurrences.

"But from what I've been reading, higher penalties have kept many from doing it again," she said.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, has a bill drafted, but not yet filed, that would put a physical marking on a driver's license that would signify the individual was convicted of a DUI.

His bill also would allow an individual convicted of a DUI to get out of a yearlong suspension if they choose to pay, within five days after conviction, to install an ignition interlock system that requires the driver to breathe into a testing device to monitor the person's blood alcohol level. If the individual is over .025 of 1 percent, the vehicle will not start. The threshold for drunken driving is 0.08.

"It's an easy way to get people from drinking and driving," he said.

Sen. John Grabinger, D-Jamestown, said most legislators are aware of the DUI issues that will be addressed. "If people are not aware, they had blinders on the last six months."

Grabinger sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee which will be the first to hear any DUI legislation filed in the Senate. He anticipates seeing many different ideas, but doesn't plan to offer any legislation himself, though he may offer amendments.

"I'm going to see what comes forward and make my points during the committee," he said.

Delmore said she anticipates many changes to any DUI-related legislation as well.

Outside the Capitol, Kelsie Handlmann, a facilities management employee, said the Deutcher's vehicle was hard to look at.

"It hurts to look at that and then the pictures of such a young family," she said.

She said the vehicle and photos should send a clear message about DUI laws.

"People make choices and it only takes the smallest error to take a life," she said. "It doesn't take much to keep things like this from happening."

Relatives of the Deutscher's donated the family's wrecked car to the Safe Communities Coalition for educational purposes. The car will be a part of a traveling display with funds from AAA groups in North Dakota and Minnesota.