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New DUI Law Takes Effect in North Dakota

In 2012, there were 147 fatal traffic crashes in North Dakota, resulting in 170 traffic deaths.  Seventy-seven of those crashes were “alcohol-related,” with drunk drivers responsible for 87 traffic fatalities.  In response, two grieving families pushed for much stiffer DUI laws in the Legislature in the 2013 session.  First, the Legislature heard Arlene and Tom Deutscher testify about the death of their son, Aaron, his wife, Allison, and their 18-month-old daughter, Brielle.  Allison Deutscher was pregnant at the time.  The Deutschers were driving on I-94 near Jamestown.   Another driver, whose blood alcohol concentration was three times the legal limit, veered across the median into oncoming traffic.  His pickup truck crashed into the Duetschers, killing everyone.  In an instant, not only did this man’s drunken driving kill himself, but everyone in a completely innocent, unsuspecting young family.

Next, the Legislature heard testimony from Juan Ruiz and Sandy Hernandez.  Ruiz and Hernandez, together with their two children, 9-year-old Alaries Ruiz and 5-year-old Cyris Ruiz, came up from Texas in 2012.  While the children slept in a tent during a camping trip near Lake Metigoshe, a drunk driver drove over their tent, killing both Alaries and Cyris, and injuring their 9-year-old friend, Anthony Tabarez, Jr.  Again, a decision to get behind the wheel after drinking changed the driver’s life forever, and ended the lives of two children with bright, promising futures.

Clearly, this testimony was heartbreaking and difficult for anyone in the Legislature to hear.  Nevertheless, the Legislature listened.  More than that, the Legislature responded.  While defense attorneys called for the Legislature to study how best to reform the law, the Legislature moved forward with much stiffer DUI penalties. The 2013 law changes doubled minimum mandatory penalties, mandated jail for even first offense DUI cases where the offender’s alcohol concentration is more than 0.16 percent, increased mandatory fines by at least double, stripped away the potential for using drug court treatment models in DUI cases, mandated the use of the 24/7 sobriety program both before and after a conviction, and criminalized refusing a chemical test.  The Legislature also extended the look-back period to use prior offenses against a defendant, making it much easier to charge a driver with more serious crimes.

Over the biennium, however, it became apparent the 2013 DUI law needed to be tweaked.  Drug Court had been one of the most effective tools in reducing repeated drunken driving but had been essentially written out of the 2013 DUI law.  There were also growing pains with the 24/7 program.  With the new refusal law, some people were being charged with and convicted of both DUI and of refusal.  The law did not provide guidance to the Department of Transportation should treat that for purposes of driver’s license suspensions.  That is, was it two offenses or one?  Finally, it seemed unreasonable to use really old prior DUI offenses against a person to charge them with a felony-level offense.

With all of these concerns, the DUI law was a topic of much discussion in the 2015 Legislature.  With input from prosecutors, defense lawyers, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Department of Transportation, the Legislature realized that perhaps some of the issues in the 2013 law needed to be addressed.  After all of the testimony, both houses of the Legislature passed SB 2052, which was then sent to the Governor for his signature.  On April 15, 2015, Governor Dalrymple signed the bill into law.  Because SB 2052 had an emergency clause, it became effective as soon as it was signed.  The changes to the DUI statute have now taken effect.

The new DUI law makes the following changes to the 2013 law:

  1. Now, the law provides clear guidance that different counts arising from a single event should be treated as a “single incident” for purposes of license suspension or revocation.  The Court can only send a single violation to the Department of Transportation.

 

  1. Now, a driver can “cure” refusing an onsite breath screening device by later submitting to a chemical test (e.g., Intoxilyzer, urine or blood sample) for the same incident.  Under the old law, a person could be convicted of DUI refusal if he refused either the onsite screening device or the official chemical test.

 

  1. Now, for an offense to be charged as a felony, the person must have at least three prior DUI or equivalent offenses within the past fifteen years (making this a fourth offense within fifteen years).  Under the 2013 version, prosecutors could charge it out as a felony if the person had at least three prior DUI offenses within their lifetime dating back to 1981.  The felony-level offense carries with it a minimum mandatory prison sentence of at least one year and one day.

 

  1. Now, a person may be given credit for pretrial compliance with the 24/7 sobriety program.  With cases taking months and months to resolve and the 24/7 program being ordered as a condition of bail, this is a big deal.

 

  1. The new law also now makes it clear that the 24/7 program is a condition of probation and cannot be included as part of the criminal sentence.

 

  1. The biggest change in the 2015 DUI law is that Drug Court is now an option again.  A Court can suspend all but 10 days of the minimum mandatory jail sentences.  This is a huge deal because Drug Court was one of the most effective options for getting repeat drunk drivers into long term treatment.

 

  1. Finally, the new law created a new chapter addressing the use of the 24/7 program in juvenile proceedings.

The penalties are still severe and have lasting consequences, but these are all welcome changes to a DUI law that some warned would do little to reduce drunken driving.  If you are charged with a DUI, do not wait.  Please contact an experienced DUI attorney like Nick Thornton to discuss how this new law affects you.  Nick can be reached at nick@fremstadlaw.com or at (701) 478-7620.

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