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Man sentenced to 2 years for DUI: Stiffer penalties make felony charges, trials more likely

GRAND FORKS — A state district judge in Grand Forks sentenced Ronald Samdahl on Tuesday to serve two years in prison because of a drunken driving law that took effect only 45 days before he was arrested.

A jury convicted him last week after a short trial and an hour of deliberation on the felony charge.

The new stiffer driving-under-the-influence laws in North Dakota as of July 1 not only ensured Samdahl, a multiple DUI offender in two states, would serve time, it also made him willing to risk a jury trial instead of pleading guilty as he always did before and most others do when charged with DUI.

Under the previous North Dakota law, five or more DUI offenses within seven years was considered a felony.

Under that rule, Samdahl would not have qualified for a felony charge when he was arrested in September in Grand Forks County, because he had only one previous DUI — in Texas — in the past seven years, even though a breath test indicated a blood-alcohol content of 0.19, more than twice the limit of 0.08.

But under the law passed in the 2013 legislative session, any fourth DUI is considered a felony, even if the previous three go back as far as 1981.

Harsher penalty

The new DUI provision for repeat offenders is part of the largest overhaul of state law on drunken driving in decades, lawmakers said.

Among other changes, the new law creates a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 days for a second DUI within seven years and a new “aggravated DUI” category for first-time offenders who register 0.16 blood-alcohol content, which results in at least two days in jail and a $750 fine.

The changes add a new minimum sentence of a year and a day in cases such as Samdahl’s, after three previous DUI convictions, making such cases Class C felonies with possible sentences up to five years in prison.

The new laws have created questions about possible unintended consequences, including a possible “double charge,” for both refusing a test and for driving drunk on one arrest, and some lawmakers have called for a review of the changes.

The legislation, plus even stricter bills that failed, were sparked by recent fatal DUI crashes, including a family killed on Interstate 94 and two young brothers hit by a drunk driver while they were sleeping in their tent at Lake Metigoshe.

The new state laws on DUI include harsher penalties for such homicides caused by drunk drivers.

Poor record

State District Judge Debbie Kleven told Samdahl with his record of at least six and probably seven DUI offenses — depending on how the 2012 Texas case is scored — he’s fortunate he wasn’t in court on more serious charges.

“I’m amazed that you … are not here on a manslaughter, that you killed someone,” Kleven said.

Kleven sentenced him to five years in prison with three years suspended during two years of supervised probation.

Despite Samdahl’s “poor history” of drunken driving, four of the offenses date to a two-year period years ago, in 1998 to 2000, his attorney, Robert Wood of Forest River, told Kleven. In the past 12 years, Samdahl has a good work history and has been a “productive” citizen, Wood said.

Samdahl, 36, had a Lisbon address last year but grew up in Walsh County. He was arrested Sept. 15 in Grand Forks County.

In recent years he has lived in Texas, where he was convicted in 2012 of drunken driving, his sixth previous offense, including five in North Dakota.

But the key issues in this case were Samdahl’s record and that he had a history of DUIs and registered more than twice the legal limit of blood-alcohol content for driving, said Jason McCarthy, the assistant state’s attorney for Grand Forks County who prosecuted him.

Felony DUI trials are not common, McCarthy said.

Wood said in an interview that it was worth the risk for Samdahl to go to trial, especially under the new laws.

“My client wanted to have his day in court. He knew that if he pleaded guilty he was going to be sentenced to incarceration. Therefore, he was willing to try the case and take his chances,” Wood said.