There was a noticeable moment of tension between City Council member Danny Weigel and Police Chief Mark Nelson at a meeting earlier this month.
Weigel, a University of North Dakota police officer who represents the city’s first ward, has been pushing for months to tone down the city’s “noisy party” ordinance, which, currently, can mean a misdemeanor for someone who hosts a party that police deem to produce an unreasonable amount of noise “likely to cause significant discomfort or annoyance to a reasonable person."
Weigel’s proposal would change violations of the ordinance from a criminal offense to a non-criminal one -- a distinction that is similar, but not precisely the same, as one between a misdemeanor and an infraction.
“The difference between the two, in addition to the classification, is the potential punishment,” said Howard Swanson, the city’s attorney. A criminal offense can mean jail time and a fine, plus a criminal record that can follow someone for years, but a non-criminal one would only mean a fine.
Weigel’s proposed change would allow UND cops to issue citations for violating the ordinance. The department can’t issue citations for criminal violations of city ordinances, and changing the noisy party ordinance to a non-criminal one would mean UND officers could enforce it themselves rather than calling the Grand Forks Police Department to do it.
Weigel said UND police have to call their city counterparts to enforce the ordinance a few times each year.
“As a council person looking at it, you’re almost wasting resources by having to have another agency come over and take care of it or issue those citations,” he told the Herald. “And you’re pulling them from something else they could be doing.”
The proposed change also would retain language that would allow city police to break up loud parties where revelers fail to disperse, and Weigel said the fine, even for a non-criminal offense, is still a solid deterrent, especially for a college student.
But Grand Forks’ police chief said last week that he isn’t on board.
“I do not believe that a $300 infraction is going to be enough of a deterrent to allow us to break up loud parties,” Nelson said at a June 10 Committee of the Whole meeting, where council members consider -- and can give informal approval to -- pieces of city business before a more formal council meeting later on. “In good faith, I can’t support this ordinance as written. Or we can’t, I should say.”
Weigel suggested Nelson had changed his stance since they had spoken earlier.
“Your words to me were, ‘I can’ -- something to the effect of, ‘I can understand it as long as we keep the failure to disperse,’” he told the chief.
Nelson disagreed with that characterization.
“Your conversation with me, Mr. Weigel, was, ‘we’re thinking of looking at this, what do you think?’” he said forcefully. “I’m not going to tell you what you can look at and what you can’t. But not seeing a draft of the ordinance, I understand why you’re looking at it through your perspective and I understand that through your eyes. And now through my eyes, this is my version.”
If the change is enacted, city police wouldn’t be able to arrest noisy partiers strictly for violating that ordinance, but they’d still be able to arrest them for failing to disperse. City cops also couldn’t enter and search a residence based on a suspected violation of the ordinance, something that Derik Zimmel, a lieutenant in the Grand Forks PD, characterized as a “last resort” but, nonetheless, a tool available to them. Violating the decriminalized ordinance would be akin to violating the speed limit, he said.
Committee members voted to table the proposal until Swanson could research how it gelled with state legislation agreed upon in 2017 that broadened the university police department’s physical jurisdiction but limited the type of offenses they have authority or jurisdiction over, Swanson said. Another conflating variable is a change enacted by North Dakota lawmakers in 2019 that ups the penalties for people who’ve committed the same non-criminal offense multiple times.
Gracie Lian, UND’s student body president since May, said she thinks decriminalizing the party ordinance would be best for students there.
“I think that students getting cited, getting a criminal record for having a noisy party is probably not the best way to address the problem,” she said. “I think that decriminalizing it might be a better option ... I think it’s probably a better use of everyone’s time.”
Grand Forks’ Committee of the Whole is expected to consider the noisy party ordinance change again in July.