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Staying sober

BISMARCK -- Efforts to keep problem drinkers from driving haven't worked, so it's time to try something else, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Wednesday.

BISMARCK -- Efforts to keep problem drinkers from driving haven't worked, so it's time to try something else, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Wednesday.

His something else is the 24/7 Sobriety Program, a pilot project for the 12-county South Central Judicial District, which includes Bismarck and Mandan. If successful and legislators agree in 2009, it will be instituted statewide, he said.

Stenehjem said 62 of the state's 110 road deaths so far this year involved alcohol. Of 6,480 DUI arrests in 2006, one third were repeat offenders.

"These are startling statistics and something must be done," he said.

Starting Jan. 1, repeat drunken driving offenders in the South Central District who are out on bond will have to undergo breath tests twice a day while awaiting trial. The district's judges support it, he said.

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The defendants must report to their local sheriff's office or jail between 6 and 9 a.m. and 6 and 9 p.m. every day and pay a dollar for each test, or $14 a week.

If any trace of alcohol is detected, they'll be immediately jailed until they can see a judge.

Defense attorneys questioned the program Wednesday, calling it "very troubling" and likely to be a "logistical nightmare."

Stenehjem got the idea from South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long, who started it in his home county as a local prosecutor. It's now statewide.

Stenehjem said 99.8 percent of South Dakota defendants comply with testing and 93.3 percent pass.

In North Dakota's program, if defendants can't go to the local sheriff's department twice a day, they can wear a bracelet that detects the presence of alcohol through their skin, and which uses a modem system in the defendants' home to the sheriff's office to report twice a day. The bracelet system costs $5 per day.

Chad McCabe, a defense attorney in Bismarck, was astonished when he heard about the program and said it goes against the concept of presumption of innocence.

"(It) may have wonderful intentions (but) its enforcement is very troubling to me," said in an e-mail message. He noted that people who are arrested lose their drivers' licenses immediately. How are they supposed to get to the jail for a test, he wondered.

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McCabe and Monty Mertz, a Fargo defense attorney, predicted huge costs and logistical problems for jails doing tests.

Mertz also questioned the plan to apply it to anyone with a previous DUI in the past 10 years.

"I don't think two DUIs in 10 years means you're a problem drinker," he said

But Stenehjem said local sheriffs have been won over and are not expecting it to cause problems, partly because they've heard positive reports from South Dakota sheriffs who had been skeptical at the beginning of the program there.

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.

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