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Suspended ND sheriff wants more than year-old charges dismissed

MINOT, N.D.--Suspended Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski and his lawyers have filed a motion to dismiss charges pending against him. Kukowski is facing two misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment and one misdemeanor charge of public servant ...

MINOT, N.D.-Suspended Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski and his lawyers have filed a motion to dismiss charges pending against him.

Kukowski is facing two misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment and one misdemeanor charge of public servant refusing to perform public duty.

The charges, dated Oct. 6, 2015, stem from operation of the Ward County Jail and the death of inmate Dustin Irwin, who died while in the custody of Burleigh County about nine hours after being transferred from Ward County.

Irwin was arrested and taken to Ward County Jail on Oct. 3, 2015. He appeared in district court later the same day to enter a plea of guilty to driving under suspension. Irwin was transferred on Oct. 6, 2015, by Kukowski and Cpt. Michael Nason to the custody of a Burleigh County deputy who met them at Coleharbor. Irwin had to be physically loaded into the Burleigh County vehicle for transportation to Bismarck.

According to Kukowski's statement, he had "no information to suggest that Mr. Irwin's condition was not suitable for transport" and that he "did nothing to create a risk of serious injury or death to Mr. Irwin." The complaint filed against Kukowski says "specifically, defendant was aware of Mr. Irwin's medical state and did not attempt to get Mr. Irwin any medical care."

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The complaint filed against Kukowski also alleges the sheriff "knowingly employed correctional facility staff and that staff did not have adequate training" and that "Mr. Kukowski also did not ensure that inmates had adequate medical care."

In their motion to dismiss the charges against Kukowski, the Vogel Law Firm of Fargo responded that the "Sheriff's general obligation of keeping and maintaining the county jail is shared" with the Ward County commissioners and the North Dakota Department of Corrections.

The complaint against Kukowski alleges he "maintained an inmate population 150 percent over the suggested population for a correctional center of its size during the time of this incident."

Kukowski contends that he made "regular reports to Ward County commissioners on the status of jail staff, inmate population, hiring, training and turnover."

In addition, Kukowski says in an affidavit filed with the North Central District Court, "all population issues were monitored and supervised by the NDDOC and jail inspector Steve Engen" and that he "sought guidance from NDDOC" as to the number of inmates that could be housed at the Ward County Jail.

Kukowski contends he was directed by Engen to "ask the fire marshal."

The Vogel Law Firm's response is that "NDDOC personnel who provided advice accuse Sheriff Kukowski of criminal wrongdoing" and asks that the "court must intervene, dismissing the criminal charges before more harm is done." Furthermore, Kukowski's attorneys say "failure to provide adequate medical care and employing officers without adequate training are facility responsibilities, not crimes."

A hearing on the motion to dismiss is scheduled for Dec. 23 before Judge Lolita G. Hartl Romanick of Grand Forks. The hearing is expected to be conducted by video conference in a Ward County courtroom. A Jan. 3, 2017, jury trial for Kukowski remains on the District Court calendar.

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Kukowski was suspended from his sheriff's post on June 15 of this year following a recommendation by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to Gov. Jack Dalrymple. The county has continued to pay his salary of $9,405 per month until a resolution of the charges against him occurs.

County commissioners appointed Major Bob Barnard interim sheriff in Kukowski's absence.

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