Little progress in hiking traffic fines expected in the Legislature

An Alabama man drives through fresh concrete on Interstate 94, leaving a $100,000 mess in his wake. He's cited for driving through a safety zone around barricades. The fine is $20. A 92-year-old strikes two motorcycles on Highway 57 in Benson Cou...

An Alabama man drives through fresh concrete on Interstate 94, leaving a $100,000 mess in his wake.

He's cited for driving through a safety zone around barricades.

The fine is $20.

A 92-year-old strikes two motorcycles on Highway 57 in Benson County, N.D., killing a woman.

She's cited for driving on the wrong side of the road.


The fine is $20.

These cases, both which made headlines earlier this month, highlight an issue that's a major frustration for law enforcement agencies: Why are North Dakota's traffic fines so light?

Granted, those incidents are the extreme and might not have played differently had the fines been higher. But supporters of upping the cost of the state's traffic fines say increases would provide a deterrent effect that's sorely lacking.

"We are so low you have to ask the question, 'What's the point?' " Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes said.

Yet efforts to boost those fines have been easily shot down in the past two sessions of the Legislature.

Ternes said he's decided to stop pushing lawmakers for increases, after lobbying in both 2007 and 2009.

"To go back out there for a third attempt and try to convey the same message is not worth my time or anybody else's time," the chief said. "It clearly has not resonated with many of the legislators across the state."

Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, said if re-elected, he'll likely try again to adjust the fine structure, which was set in the mid-1950s.


But Gruchalla, a former North Dakota trooper who has sponsored the House's fine-raising bills, said he's not confident the result will be much different.

"I'm a little bit disillusioned by the last vote in the House," he said. "I don't quite understand it."

The 2009 House vote was 57-35, with more than half of the "yes" votes coming from lawmakers in the four largest cities in the state: Fargo, Minot, Grand Forks and Bismarck.

That's why Ternes hopes that if he steps asides as a vocal proponent, rural law enforcement officers could be more convincing.

However, the vote wasn't strictly along urban-rural lines. The 16 House members from Fargo and West Fargo split an even 8-8.

One of the "no" votes was House Majority Leader Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo. Carlson said he'd be open to an increase in fines as long as they aren't pumped up too high too fast. Doubling a fine is too much, he said.

"If it's a major increase, I wouldn't support it. If it's reasonable, I'll discuss it," Carlson said.

Carlson said much of the opposition to raising the fines does come from lawmakers on the more rural west side of the state.


"His goal is to make speeding affordable," he said of an unnamed western legislator. "That's not my goal."

Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, is from District 35, which includes much of the northwest corner of the state, including four counties that border Montana.

Kempenich said while he would support boosting the fines in construction zones, where speeding tickets are already mandated to be at least $80, he'd prefer to see a more punitive structure for the license "points" that can eventually lead to a driving suspension. That is the best way to get at repeat offenders, he said.

"The dollar amounts are not going to slow them up much, unless you really got carried away with it," he said.

Gruchalla's bill in 2009 aimed to raise the standard moving violation from $20 to $30 and those for specific fines, such as speeding.

Many serious traffic violations carry that generic moving violation fine of $20, including running a stop sign or a red light, failing to yield, making an illegal U-turn, driving on the sidewalk and tailgating an emergency vehicle. And don't forget the two violations from the cases earlier this month: driving around a barricade and driving on the wrong side of the road.

Gruchalla said driving around a barricade is a good example of a fine that needs to be higher, as it's given to drivers who ignore road closures during winter storms. He said it was a common violation he saw as a trooper.

"They knew what the fine was. They thought it was worth the risk," he said.


Carlson said he'd support a compromise that would allow cities to have costlier tickets than the state's, which many of them did before a 2008 ruling by the North Dakota Supreme Court barred the practice.

It's a financial issue for Fargo, as well. In 2009, the first full year since it had to do away with the higher city fines, Municipal Court collected about $1 million less in fines than it did in 2006 and 2007. City finance officials had predicted the loss would be in that range.

Ternes has maintained it is not a financial issue for police, as fines go into the city's general fund. But it definitely makes traffic-law enforcement more difficult because there are two ways to deter driving violations: high fines and a large police presence.

The chief said that's why there has been a particular focus on traffic issues by Fargo officers in the past two years. On Thursday and Friday, for example, two separate "blitz" campaigns by Fargo police generated 180 citations.

"The traffic fine thing is really a dead issue for us. What we're left with is the other," Ternes said. "There has to be that atmosphere where drivers think, 'I see cops everywhere.'"

Dave Roepke is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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