Port: This self-defense bill in Bismarck, backed by Kyle Rittenhouse, is probably bad policy

"Instead of legislation backed by a celebrity criminal defendant, North Dakota's lawmakers should look at putting more funding into public defenders."

North Dakota Capitol
North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck.
Forum News Service file photo

MINOT, N.D. — As I write this, Kyle Rittenhouse , who has become a celebrity to right wing audiences after he shot and killed two people and wounded a third during violent protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, testified in Bismarck this morning on self-defense legislation.

Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges after claiming he had acted in self-defense. The legislation he's supporting is House Bill 1213 , introduced by Rep. Nico Rios, a Republican from Williston.

You can read Rittenhouse's pre-submitted written testimony here . The full committee hearing, including Rittenhouse's testimony, can be viewed here .

This legislation seeks to have the state reimburse defendants if they are acquitted of a "crime of violence," a term defined in the bill as, "a violation of state law in which an individual causes death or physical bodily injury to another individual," specifically including "assault" and "murder."

Rittenhouse's testimony is apt, I suppose. He was acquitted of a violent crime, and, to help pay his legal fees, went so far as release a video game, called "Kyle Rittenhouse's Turkey Shoot," which allowed players to kill creatures exhibiting "liberal bias."


That Rittenhouse is what constitutes a thought leader in right-wing circles these days is depressing, and a topic for whole different sort of column.

Is HB 1213, which has already passed the House on a 50-40 vote and is currently before the Senate's Judiciary Committee, good policy despite its uninspiring provenance? I like the idea of giving prosecutors some pause when it comes to pursuing cases against those who act in self-defense, but as a practical matter, I'm not sure this law is workable.

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Who gets to decide when an acquittal is the result of a self-defense argument? This isn't as clear-cut as you think. Defense attorneys often offer several arguments for the innocence of their clients. A self-defense argument could be one of them, but it may or may not be the deciding factor. And, by the way, in the state of North Dakota, the burden is on the prosecutors to prove that self-defense isn't a valid defense in a given criminal case. It's another hurdle they have to get over to get a conviction.

That may be why this legislation makes reimbursement discretionary. It says the courts "may order the state to reimburse the defendant for all reasonable costs incurred in defense." Meaning judges can say no, and probably would.

Speaking of defenses, why limit this to self-defense? What about defenses like consent, necessity, or the exercise of lawful authority? Speaking to that last, what about a cop who is accused of excessive use of force during the conduct of their duties? Should they be reimbursed if acquitted? Or how about a teacher who, while intervening in a fight between students, is accused of assault? Should they, also, be reimbursed?

Isn't all this why we have juries?

And what about criminal cases that don't end in acquittal? If a prosecutor pursues a case to the cusp of a trial but then agrees to a plea agreement with the defendant for some lesser charge, the legal bills for the defense will still be large, but this legislation wouldn't allow reimbursement.

It seems clear that this legislation wasn't thought out very well - something evidenced by Rep. Rios's poorly-prepared and rambling testimony in favor of it - and it may well have been prompted more by Rittenhouse's case and resulting celebrity appeal than any problem in need of resolution in North Dakota's court system.


In fact, Rep. Rios acknowledged, repeatedly, in his testimony in support of his own bill that instances to which this legislation would apply are so vanishingly rare in North Dakota he couldn't find an example of one.

Frankly, if our lawmakers are worried about excessive legal costs for defendants, then perhaps they should put more money into public defenders. Those offices are woefully understaffed and underfunded, and a North Dakotan must make less than about $17,000 per year. That level is so low it leaves many who are facing serious criminal charges unable to afford a private lawyer but also not qualified for a public defender. More funding for public defenders would far more helpful to criminal defendants than this bill.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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