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Port: Wrigley incorrectly blames judges for lack of fleeing convictions

North Dakota judges are already required to report deviations to minimum sentencing guidelines, and there have been just two since 2016.

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North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley
Dave Olson/The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — Attorney General Drew Wrigley wants to get tough on people who flee police officers.

“It’s an enormous life-and-death situation (that law enforcement officers) are being placed in all the time because a number of people fleeing are not getting additional sentences,” he said recently . “They’re not getting additional sentences, so why wouldn’t they try to flee?”

It's a good question.

Wrigley's plea found fertile ground with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which argued in an editorial that “[t]here are seldom any penalties for fleeing from a police officer.”

I can't speak to why these additional sentences aren't happening, but they're certainly allowed for in the law. In fact, in 2019 the Legislature increased the penalties for fleeing law enforcement. Section 39-10-71 of the North Dakota Century Code is now written in such a way that it would be difficult to flee without getting a class C felony charge.

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On the civil side of things, under section 39-06.1-10, anyone who flees a police officer in a motor vehicle is assessed 24 demerit points against their driver's license. If you started with a perfectly clean driving record, that would result in an 84-day license suspension in addition to the criminal penalties.

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“It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize how dangerous this is, when someone flees,” Wrigley says, and he's right, but the law already addresses that too.

Under 12.1-17-12 , a person is "guilty of a class A felony if that person negligently causes the death of another or a class B felony if that person negligently causes serious bodily injury to another" while fleeing.

As a matter of the written law, we've already gotten tough with those who flee, but they're still fleeing.

What gives?

Wrigley argues that the judges are to blame, and he wants to put them in the hot seat.

"Wrigley intends to propose legislation that would require offenders convicted of fleeing law enforcement to serve their sentences consecutively," our Sav Kelly reports . "Ideally, judges who choose not to give additional jail time for fleeing law enforcement would be required to provide a written explanation."

“That’s a transparency measure. That’s an integrity in government measure,” Wrigley said. “We need to have even more transparency in our court system.”

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But it's a transparency mechanism our state courts already have. Section 12.1-32-02.3 of state law allows judges to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences, but the courts have to make annual reports of them available to the public.

You can look them up yourselves but, spoiler alert, there hasn't been a single deviation from minimum sentencing guidelines since 2017, when there were just two.

Is the problem the judges? I'm not so sure.

We may be seeing fewer fleeing charges because the cops, responsive to the risks of high-speed pursuits, aren't chasing.

Or maybe it's our elected prosecutors who aren't bringing the charges. Judges can't sentence when there aren't convictions.

Either way, it seems Wrigley may need to give this particular issue some more thought before we go making more laws.

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 rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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