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ND Supreme Court clears way for trial for ND sheriff

Suspended Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski Forum News Service file photo

BISMARCK—North Dakota's Supreme Court has overturned a technicality ruling by a district court judge, clearing the way for a trial or plea agreement for suspended Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski.

The sheriff, based in Minot, is charged with two counts of reckless endangerment and public servant refusing to perform duty related to the care of a prisoner at the Ward County Jail.

All three charges are Class B misdemeanors.

One of the prisoners in his care—Dustin Irwin—died shortly after being transferred to a Bismarck jail.

The Supreme Court in its ruling denied a request by attorneys representing Kukowski to uphold a ruling made by District Court Judge Lolita Hartl Romanick of Grand Forks in December.

Romanick heard arguments regarding the case against Kukowski and ruled on a motion to amend a complaint. In a written ruling issued several days after the hearing in Grand Forks, Romanick agreed with the defense that a date of 2015 rather than 2014 on a complaint involving the death of Ward County inmate Irwin meant that one of two counts of reckless endangerment against Kukowski is not valid.

However, the Supreme Court said in its ruling, "...we direct the district court to grant the State's motion to amend the criminal complaint" and that "one of the reckless endangerment counts explicitly alleged Sheriff Kukowski willfully created a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to another by failing to provide inmate Dustin Irwin with medical care."

The case dates back to late 2014.

In an affidavit filed with the court after Irwin's death , Bureau of Criminal Investigations Special Agent Allen Kluth maintained that "While Mr. Irwin was being held in Ward County, his health deteriorated over the three days he was held. By the time of his transport, Irwin was incoherent, urinating on himself, disoriented, and had to be physically loaded into the transport vehicle" and that "Mr. Kukowski was aware of Mr. Irwin's medical state and did not attempt to get Mr. Irwin any medical care, which created a substantial risk of serious bodily injury or death to another."

Kukowski's attorneys have denied the charges against their client. Irwin was arrested on October 3, 2014 and held for three days in the Ward County Jail until involved in a prisoner exchange with Burleigh County. Irwin died approximately eight hours after the transfer.

The Supreme Court ruling on the request by Special Prosecutor Seymour Jordan to amend the complaint, which Jordan maintained was a clerical mistake, stated that "Sheriff Kukowski failed to establish he was misled by the erroneous date in the complaint and he had notice of the correct year of the underlying incident giving rise to the charges."

Furthermore, the Supreme Court stated, "It is undisputed Sheriff Kukowski was the Ward County Sheriff in both 2014 and 2015, and all three of the charges allege criminal conduct regardless of whether the conduct occurred in 2014 or 2015."

The defense had argued that "time" was a key element in the case, saying that a date of 2015 rather than 2014 meant that prosecution of Kukowski on the count in question was not valid. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying, "the district court misapplied the law in determining the date was an essential element of the charge." The Supreme Court has directed the district court in Grand Forks to grant the State's motion to amend the complaint.

Kukowski was suspended from his position in June 2016 by order of then Governor Jack Dalrymple. He continues to receive his full salary of $9,405 per month with the approval of Ward County commissioners.

Each count is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.