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Fargo flood arrests from spring float away

FARGO -- As the Red River pushed dikes to their brink this March, police warned they would arrest people who walked on the earth levees protecting the cities.

It wasn't an empty threat. At least 20 arrests were made related to the flood fight in Fargo, mostly for violating an emergency order or driving around barricades.

But the arrests amounted to very little eventual penalties, oftentimes none.

Ten of the cases in Fargo were dismissed, including that of a CNN photojournalist from Chicago, municipal court records show.

City Attorney Erik Johnson said cases were dismissed due to a technicality, as an emergency order giving police the authority to arrest dike climbers may not have been in force in late March when the bulk of the arrests were made.

"It created an argument as to whether the order was in effect at all," Johnson said.

Mayor Dennis Walaker issued the initial order on March 6, but by city law the order can only last for two weeks unless extended. It wasn't officially extended until an April 6 City Commission meeting.

Johnson said prosecutors could have argued that in frequently speaking of the order, Walaker had essentially extended it. But after consulting with police, it was decided the arrests had accomplished their goal.

"Their opinion was we got people off the dikes. That was the big concern," Johnson said.

In six other Fargo cases, the files were sealed and those charged got deferred impositions - meaning the misdemeanors didn't go on their records if they stayed out of legal trouble for a set period of time, 30 days in all but one of the six cases.

In at least two instances, 30 hours of community service was ordered.

Scott Diamond, a city prosecutor, said there was no policy to treat the flood fight cases with leniency.

"We try to prosecute all the cases we get," Diamond said. "I think it was more based on the facts of the individual cases."

Diamond said the cases were handled by a former city prosecutor who is now a Cass County public defender, Gordon Dexheimer. Dexheimer didn't return a call seeking comment.

Of the four arrests made by deputies in Clay County, all for driving around a barricade, two were fined a total of $125. The other two pleaded guilty to alcohol-related driving offenses, the barricade charge not filed in one case and dismissed in the other.

Cass County deputies and Moorhead police arrested no one for charges related to the flood fight, said officials from those agencies.

Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes said he's not disappointed the arrests didn't lead to stricter penalties and added that he's more disappointed that onlookers required police attention in the first place.

"It took away time and resources that could have been better used somewhere else," he said.

Ternes did acknowledge that if arrests have little consequences, their deterrence value is diminished.

"If we were to go down that path again, we would make sure those things are all in order," the chief said.