Standing next to an enlarged image of an 18-month-old girl who was killed by a drunken driver, supporters of a proposal to toughen North Dakota's DUI laws said Tuesday the time has come to pass a bill.
The legislation would make North Dakota one of 15 states to require jail time for first-time DUI offenders, and increase fines and penalties for repeat offenders. It would change current law to require mandatory blood tests, probation and participation in a sobriety program.
Rep. Kim Koppelman, the bill sponsor, said a wrong-way crash in July that killed three members of a West Fargo family has "made people think" about changing the law.
"Finally, I think people look at tragedies like this and the closer to home they hit, of course, the more they affect us," said Koppelman, R-West Fargo. "It's sort of a critical mass kind of thing. You get to a point where you say enough already."
Allison Deutscher; her husband, Aaron Deutscher; and the couple's 18-month-old daughter, Brielle, were killed when a pickup truck driven by Wyatt Klein, of Jamestown, collided head-on with the family's SUV on Interstate 94 west of Jamestown. Allison Deutscher was pregnant.
Klein, who also died in the wreck, was driving the wrong way, and his blood-alcohol content was 0.25 percent, three times the legal limit for driving.
Lynn Mickelson, Allison Deutscher's father, handed out cards Tuesday pushing for "Brielle's Law," and said after the press conference that he will whatever he can to promote the bill.
"I owe it to my family. I owe it to my kids who were lost. And others who were lost," Mickelson said. "This has got to quit. It's very important to get this passed."
The proposal increases most of the minimum mandatory jail sentences. Current law does not require jail time for a first offender and calls for a minimum 10-day sentence for second offenses and beyond. The proposed rules call for at least four days in jail for first-time offenders, 10 days for second, 60 days for third and one year for fourth and beyond.
Statistics show, on average, 31 percent of accidents nationally are caused by drunken driving. Of the 148 people who died on North Dakota roadways in 2011, alcohol was involved in 47 percent of those accidents. And more than half of the fatal crashes this year involved impaired drivers.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the blood test is important because it's difficult to convict offenders without that evidence. Officials considered a South Dakota law that allows police to physically force drunken driving suspects to give a blood sample, but decided instead to make it illegal to refuse the test.
"We decided that calling that a criminal offense was a better result than encouraging wrestling matches on the prairie between law enforcement folks and drunk drivers," Koppelman said.
Page 2 of 2 - The bill would require mandatory participation in the so-called 24/7 sobriety program, which requires offenders to report twice a day to a law enforcement center and blow into a device to show they're sober. People who can't make the trip would wear an ankle bracelet to track their sobriety in real time.
Stenehjem said the 24/7 program is better than equipment that does not allow someone who is drunk to start a car.
"That is a fine tool to have in the toolbox, but I often think those interlocking devices keep the car from drinking, but what we really need to do is keep the offender from drinking," he said.
DUI arrests in North Dakota shot up 53 percent in the last 10 years, including 6,600 arrests last year. The average blood-alcohol content of North Dakota drunken drivers in 2011 was the highest since 2006.
North Dakota also ranks among the worst states in the country for juveniles who drink and drive, binge drink and ride in a car with someone who is impaired by alcohol.
"We must to more to reverse the troubling trends in North Dakota," Gov. Jack Dalrymple said. "It is not acceptable that the percentage of accidents involving alcohol is increasing."