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North Dakota Legislature passes bill to relax penalty for underage drinking

Under the current law, adults between 18 and 21 found to have drunk, possessed or bought alcohol could face a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Rep. Zachary Ista's bill would change the maximum punishment to an infraction, which comes with a possible $1,000 fine but no jail time.

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The chamber of the North Dakota Senate is pictured on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — A bill to soften the maximum penalties for underage drinking will land on Gov. Doug Burgum's desk after both legislative chambers overwhelmingly backed the idea.

The North Dakota Senate voted 42-4 on Tuesday, March 23, to approve House Bill 1223 , a bipartisan proposal spearheaded by Rep. Zachary Ista, D-Grand Forks. A spokesman for Burgum declined to comment on whether the Republican governor will sign the bill.

Under the current law, adults between 18 and 21 found to have drunk, possessed or bought alcohol could face a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Ista's bill would change the maximum punishment to an infraction, which comes with a possible $1,000 fine but no jail time.

Ista previously told Forum News Service the proposal came at the request of Grand Forks judges who believe there's "a misalignment in the law" regarding penalties for underage drinking and marijuana possession. Lawmakers passed legislation in 2019 that knocked down the maximum penalty for possessing up to a half ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction.

Proponents of the bill argue the possibility of jail time for a young North Dakotan caught drinking is excessively harsh, though Ista, a prosecutor, noted that judges rarely throw the book at such defendants.

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Underage drinkers caught by police three or more times can still be charged with a misdemeanor. The bill does not change any penalties for driving under the influence.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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