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Tougher ND DUI laws take effect today

By Mike Nowatzki / The Forum

FARGO — Stiffer drunken driving penalties that take effect today in North Dakota are expected to put more DUI offenders behind bars and force more into a sobriety program, but Cass County Jail and law enforcement officials say they will monitor the new laws’ effects before making any adjustments.

Capt. Judy Tollefson, who oversees the jail, said the sheriff’s office isn’t concerned about the potential for a shortage of bed space at this point, but it will continue to monitor trends.

The jail’s capacity is 348 beds, with 48 of those reserved for juvenile detention, and it now averages 227 adult inmates and seven juvenile inmates per day, Tollefson said. The facility is considered full when it reaches about 80 percent capacity, she said.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued a statement Friday saying he hopes the combination of stiffer fines, mandatory jail sentences and “forced sobriety” through participation in the statewide 24/7 sobriety program will curb DUI offenses. North Dakota logged 6,600 DUI arrests in 2011.

The new DUI laws raise the minimum fine from $250 to $500 for first-time offenders. First-timers with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.16 percent or greater will now fall into a new aggravated DUI category with a minimum fine of $750 and a mandatory two days in jail or 20 hours of community service.

The stiffer penalties could come into play in many cases. The average BAC was 0.174 in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics were available, according to the attorney general’s office.

Repeat offenders also will face harsher penalties, including mandatory probation and participation in the 24/7 program, and minimum sentences ranging from 10 days for a second offense within seven years to one year and one day for a fourth or subsequent offense, which is now a Class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Currently, those participating in the 24/7 program in Cass County must report to the jail for sobriety testing twice a day, during hourlong periods in the morning and evening. Those reporting periods could expand to two hours if the new laws significantly boost participation in the program, said Tara Morris, spokeswoman for the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.

“They feel like that’s going to accommodate it at least initially, but then they’ll keep assessing,” she said.

From 2008 to May 7 of this year, 509 people participated in the 24/7 program in Cass County, a state attorney general’s report shows.

“We’ve seen pretty good success with the program, so we feel this just helps with the overall goal,” Morris said of the new laws.

Among the other changes under the new laws:

* Drunken drivers who cause the death of another person can be charged with a Class A felony offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison. As of Friday, 25 people had been killed in alcohol-related crashes on North Dakota roads, the Highway Patrol reported. Eighty-seven people were killed by drunken drivers in the state last year, the attorney general’s office said.

* Refusing to submit to a breath or blood test is now an offense with the same penalties as a DUI offense with chemical testing.

Fargo Police Lt. Joel Vettel said the city is working on updating its ordinances to reflect the new state DUI laws. Until that happens, DUI test refusals won’t be charged criminally but will be handled through the administrative process, which can result in the driver losing his or her license for a year, he said.

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