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Over 64,000 drivers in North Dakota have suspended licenses, so why do they continue to drive?

The state says it has made it easier for drivers to get their licenses back, but some attorneys say the DOT, low risk and need to drive to get to work in rural areas has caused a vicious cycle of repeated offenses.

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Troy Becker/ Forum News Service
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FARGO — More than 64,000 North Dakotans have suspended licenses, according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation, but that doesn’t necessarily keep those drivers off the road.

From 2018 through 2021, prosecutors in North Dakota have filed 25,520 charges of driving under suspension or revocation, according to data from the state Supreme Court. Massachusetts insurance company Insurify said in 2019 that North Dakota had the highest percentage of suspended drivers in the nation at 7.1%.

“Honestly, for us to run into somebody that’s under suspension or revocation is fairly common, but once we do find those individuals, we’ll cite them for the violation,” North Dakota Highway Patrol Sgt. Wade Kadrmas said.

Hundreds of people in the Fargo area drive without a valid license because, to many, it is worth the risk, said Richard Edinger, a criminal defense attorney in Fargo.

“People need to go to work,” Edinger said, adding he is not advocating for people driving under suspension. “A lot of people say the potential fine is worth driving with a suspended license.”

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The state has made moves to offer more options for reinstatement, such as installing kiosks and working on phone apps, North Dakota DOT Driver License Division Director Brad Schafer said.

“We're trying to make it easier for people to be able to pay their fees in order to get back on the road,” he said.

But Fargo attorney Mark Friese said the state has done the opposite. Numerous clients have called his office expressing their frustrations with the state transportation department. Many said the DOT won’t answer phone calls. When residents do get ahold of someone, the person on the other line makes it difficult to work with, Friese said.

“The prevailing policy of the North Dakota Department of Transportation is to penalize drivers rather than to help them get reinstated,” Friese said, adding the culture of telling drivers no and putting up roadblocks has discouraged people from going through the process of reinstating their licenses.

Coupled with the need to drive in North Dakota to work, it prompts motorists to take the risk and possibly enter a "vicious cycle" that can last years, Edinger said.

“You can make it difficult enough for people to give up,” Friese said.

Driving is a privilege

Driving with a suspended license is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine, unless it's their fourth conviction where punishment increases to almost a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

The criminal penalties are reasonable, Edinger said.

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A license can be suspended for a number of reasons, such as driving under the influence or too many traffic violations.

Officers may not know a license is suspended until they stop someone for another reason, such as a traffic violation, Kadrmas said. A trooper may also stop a driver because they know their license is suspended.

Driving is a privilege, Kadrmas said.

“Our traffic laws are set to ensure that our roadways are safe,” he said. “That’s why speed limits are set. That’s why drivers shouldn’t be driving impaired.”

Schafer acknowledged some records show licenses have been suspended for 50 years due to all of the violations, and that driving with a suspended license is a choice.

“We don’t want to suspend people, but we have to legally because of whatever they did,” he said.

Law enforcement can only do so much, Kadrmas said. It’s up to the courts to handle the case after a driver is cited.

Needing a driver's license to work

A court and the transportation department both have the authority to suspend a license. If a court administers a criminal punishment, such as jail time, without suspending a license, the DOT can suspend the license as part of a civil action.

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The civil action is not considered a punishment, Edinger said. Therefore, it doesn’t violate double jeopardy, or the concept that you can’t be punished twice for the same crime.

His clients, however, would disagree, he said.

Driving under suspension multiple times comes with real consequences, Stark County State’s Attorney Amanda Engelstad said, noting suspension is usually extended on top of the original penalty.

In rural areas, especially in western counties like Stark, it is more difficult to get around without a license, she said, citing people who need to work may have to drive to their job.

“If you don’t get to your job, you become unemployed,” Engelstad said. “It can cause some real serious, personal socioeconomic issues.”

A less common reason for having a suspended license is not paying fines or child support. A person typically needs to work in order to pay for child support.

“What good is it going to do to catch up on their child support if you can’t drive to get to work?” Friese asked.

The DUS charges can add up quickly if a person is trying to get to work, Engelstad said.

Some of Edinger's clients have driven for years without a license.

“Generally speaking, the person is driving dozens of times and their luck ran out,” he said.

'Let a judge make a decision'

The DOT offers a number of options so drivers can get their licenses back, spokesman David Finley said. The state sends information to the suspended motorist that gives them instructions on how to do that, he said.

Drivers seeking reinstatement can mail a check or money order to the Driver License Division at 608 E. Boulevard Ave., Bismarck, ND 58505. People also can call 701-328-2604 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and pay with a credit card, or pay online at apps.nd.gov/dot/dlts/dlos/reinstatement/search.htm .

The state also launched a phone app called ND Drive to help drivers get their license back, Schafer said. For better access, the DOT installed 52 kiosks last year across the state, which can be located at dot.nd.gov/divisions/mv/renewal-options.htm , to help drivers with licensing issues.

“It is up to the individual to ensure requirements are met,” Finley said.

Requirements for reinstatement may include an alcohol evaluation, paying a fee and waiting for the suspension time to expire, Schafer said. The DOT gets a lot of questions about what is needed, so the department is working on an online app that will tell drivers what they need to do to get their license back, he said.

“That, we think, will eliminate a lot of the phone calls into our section that deals with the suspensions and records,” Schafer said.

Friese said it would be better to develop a plan to make sure they are insured and get a license reinstated. The North Dakota Legislature also should look at how to handle suspensions since people continue to drive despite the laws, he said, adding the DOT shouldn't be involved in the process of suspending a license.

Some circumstances don’t require a license to be suspended, Friese said, sharing an example of one of his clients who called a sober ride company and waited in his car to get picked up, only to be arrested for being in physical control while intoxicated.

Friese felt that person didn’t deserve to lose their license, but, according to Friese, the DOT sees it in black and white.

“Instead of suspending everyone's driver's license on a DUI offense, let a judge make a decision,” he said. “If it's an egregious case, if it's something where the person deserves to have a license suspended, to have it as part of the penalty in the criminal case.”

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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