A county prosecutor in southeastern North Dakota is routinely charging many first-time drunken driving offenders with the lesser offense of reckless driving, records show.
Lyle Bopp, the Sargent County state's attorney, said the practice gives first offenders a second chance and reduces the impact on their car insurance payments. He said he's been knocking down DUI charges for a decade.
Although the penalties for drunken driving and reckless driving are similar, a reckless driving charge has much less effect on insurance rates, which Bopp said is important given the lack of public transportation in a rural county.
"We're in a different situation down here," Bopp said. "People need to get to work."
Highway Patrol Sgt. Tom Iverson said the practice is discouraging to law enforcement officers.
"If they're out there making the arrests, and there's proper evidence in court, and the charge is automatically reduced to reckless driving, that is something that our officers do get frustrated with," Iverson told The Forum newspaper (http://bit.ly/T9lu6C).
In 2010 and 2011, 32 of the 51 DUI arrests in the county were charged as reckless driving. Bopp said he will not give the break to repeat offenders, people with serious traffic offenses and drivers with a blood-alcohol content of greater than 0.15 percent. The legal limit in North Dakota is 0.08 percent.
Iverson said he does not know of any other North Dakota county where first-time drunken driving offenses are routinely reduced to reckless driving. The Highway Patrol is concerned drivers will take the offense less seriously if they know the punishment will be lighter, Iverson said.
"Unfortunately, that's the state's attorney's decision," he said. "We don't want to get wrapped around trying to dictate what the state's attorney is doing."
Bopp said he is not worried about giving the perception that drinking and driving is less serious than it is.
"If it sends the wrong message, I'm going to have them back here," he said.