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Getting tough on drunk driving could mean increasing penalties

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opinion Fargo, 58102

Fargo North Dakota 101 5th Street North 58102

There has been considerable discussion in the media about toughening the sanctions for driving under the influence of alcohol. The proposed changes may include increased fines, longer jail sentences, ignition interlock systems and lengthier suspension of a person's driving privileges. To provide a base line for the upcoming discussions a review of the current law is necessary.

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Presently, a person convicted of a first or second alcohol related driving offense within a five year time period is guilty of a class B misdemeanor. The current minimum mandatory sentencing for a first offense must include both a fine of at least two hundred fifty dollars and an order for addiction evaluation by an appropriately licensed addiction treatment program. The minimum for a second offense must include at least five days' imprisonment or placement in a minimum security facility, of which forty-eight hours must be served consecutively, or thirty days' community service instead of imprisonment; a fine of at least five hundred dollars; and an order for addiction evaluation by an appropriately licensed addiction treatment program. In contrast, the maximum allowable penalty for a Class B misdemeanor is thirty days' imprisonment, a fine of one thousand dollars, or both may be imposed.

Under current law a person convicted of a third alcohol related driving offense in a five-year period or a fourth offense in a seven-year period is guilty of class A misdemeanor. For a third offense within five years, the sentence must include at least sixty days' imprisonment or placement in a minimum security facility, of which forty-eight hours must be served consecutively; a fine of one thousand dollars; and an order for addiction evaluation by an appropriately licensed addiction treatment program. For a fourth or subsequent offense within seven years, the sentence must include one hundred eighty days' imprisonment or placement in a minimum security facility, of which forty-eight hours must be served consecutively; a fine of one thousand dollars; and an order for addiction evaluation by an appropriately licensed treatment program. The district court may elect to suspend all but ten days of imprisonment upon the condition the defendant completes an evaluation for drug or alcohol abuse. The maximum allowable penalty for a Class A misdemeanor is one year's imprisonment, a fine of two thousand dollars, or both, may be imposed.

A person convicted of a fifth or subsequent alcohol related driving offense in a seven-year period is guilty of a class C felony. The sentence must include one hundred eighty days' imprisonment or placement in a minimum security facility, of which forty-eight hours must be served consecutively; a fine of one thousand dollars; and an order for addiction evaluation by an appropriately licensed treatment program. The district court may elect to suspend all but ten days of imprisonment upon the condition the defendant completes an evaluation for drug or alcohol abuse. The maximum allowable penalty for a Class C felony is five years' imprisonment, a fine of five thousand dollars, or both, may be imposed.

As a point of clarification the term "imprisonment" includes house arrest. As a condition of house arrest, a defendant may not consume alcoholic beverages. The house arrest must include a program of electronic home detention in which the defendant is tested at least twice daily for the consumption of alcohol. The defendant shall defray all costs associated with the electronic home detention.

Additional sanctions are currently available to the court when deciding sentencing. Upon conviction of a second or subsequent alcohol related driving offense within five years the court must order the motor vehicle number plates of all of the motor vehicles owned and operated by the defendant at the time of the offense to be impounded for the period of time the defendant's driving privileges are suspended or revoked. However, the court may make an exception to the rule on an individual basis, to avoid undue hardship to an individual who is completely dependent on the motor vehicle for the necessities of life, including a family member of the convicted individual and a co-owner of the motor vehicle.

The court may order the motor vehicle owned and operated by a person convicted of an alcohol related driving offense to be seized, forfeited, and sold or otherwise disposed of pursuant to an order of the court at the time of sentencing. The person must have at least one prior conviction in the five years preceding the latest offense. This provision is seldom used in North Dakota. In comparison, Moorhead Police Department seized seventy-two vehicles in 2011 under a similar Minnesota statute. Following a civil court hearing, forty of the vehicles were ordered forfeited and sold. The remaining thirty-two vehicles were returned to the owner or to the lien holder of the vehicle.

The court may also require that an ignition interlock device be installed in the person's vehicle for a period of time that the court deems appropriate. An ignition interlock device works by analyzing a driver's breath sample to measure blood alcohol content and disabling the vehicle's ignition system if the driver's breathe contains alcohol above a set threshold. Additional tests are conducted during "rolling retests." At random times during the operation of the vehicle the ignition interlock device will signal the driver of the need to provide a fresh breath sample. If, within a set period of time, the driver does not provide a clean breath sample an alarm will sound or the car's horn will honk. The device is not designed to turn off a moving vehicle in the event of a failed retest. Few, if any, courts order the interlock system as part of sentencing.

Current North Dakota law allows the court to impose a higher sanction up to the maximum set by statute. The West Municipal Court sentences first time offenders to a fine of $450; 30 days in jail, all suspended; an order for chemical dependency evaluation; and attendance of the victim impact panel. A second time offender is sentenced to a fine of $550; 30 days in jail, 26 days suspended; an order for chemical dependency evaluation; and attendance of the victim impact panel.

A push for tougher sanctions seems to have taken traction across the state. Change is necessary to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured each year in alcohol related crashes. Change can occur through friends, relatives and business owners not allowing someone to drink and drive. Change can occur through tougher laws which strengthen the penalties to drink and drive. Ultimately, real change will only occur when each of us elect not to drink and drive.

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