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What we learned from the Sander case

Police work is difficult, but more so in western North Dakota.

Earlier this week, Southwest District Judge William Herauf accepted Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning’s motion to dismiss charges against Thomas Sander, the former Trinity High School principal who the state alleged started the March 3 fire that caused upward of $20 million in damages and displaced students for the remainder of the school year.

The motion came after Herauf had ruled the first-year principal had not been read Miranda rights prior to his confession.

Miranda rights are a warning given in the U.S. to criminal suspects in police custody (or in a custodial interrogation) before they are interrogated to preserve the admissibility of their statements against them in criminal proceedings. The Miranda warning is part of a preventive criminal procedure rule that law enforcement is required to administer to protect an individual in custody and subject to direct questioning, or its functional equivalent, from a violation of his or her Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination.

The state had argued that Sander’s Miranda rights were met and that Sander understood he was in a custodial interrogation. Sander’s defense lawyers argued successfully that the officers did not properly Mirandize Sander and he did not understand his rights, which ultimately lead to the dismissal of the case.

Mistakes are sometimes made in interrogations, and Herauf ruled they were made in this case. Sander’s attorneys say the dismissal was affirmation of their client’s innocence. They may be right, but Herauf and Henning did not say in the dismissal whether Sander was guilty or innocent. That would have to been determined by a jury of his peers. As they say, innocent until proven guilty.

Henning told The Dickinson Press that there was insufficient evidence at this time to go forward with a reasonable expectation of a conviction after much of Sander’s confession was ruled inadmissible in court on July 1. However, the state can still bring a new criminal case against Sander if new evidence surfaces within the three-year statute of limitations.

At The Press, we understand police work isn’t easy and investigations require loads of time and manpower that are not always abundant these days. Sometimes procedural mistakes happen.

Working with local law enforcement on a daily basis, we know they don’t accept mistakes and do everything within their power to eliminate them. This case, as big as it was, is only one of the many serious crimes that five years ago were so rare. This isn’t so today.

Unlike folks from the eastern part of the state, we certainly have a far better understanding of the unprecedented challenges faced by local law enforcement in western North Dakota because of our rapidly growing population.

The Dickinson Police Department, Stark County Sheriff’s Office and other area law enforcement have done a remarkable job keeping us safe despite the many challenges they face in this unprecedented time in western North Dakota. We appreciate their dedication and sacrifices, and that they put themselves in harm’s way to protect us every time they go to work.

That said, the Dickinson Police Department knows it owes the city, Trinity and all those involved the answer as to who started the fire and why.