A Wabasha County diversion program that offers to throw out traffic tickets for drivers who pay to take a safety course has been ordered to a permanent halt by a judge who says the program is illegal.

The ruling, issued Monday, calls into question whether more than 30 similar programs across the state can continue. State Auditor Rebecca Otto, who has warned for a decade that such programs are not allowed, praised the judge’s decision.

“This is the first time one of these [programs] has reached the courts, and the courts are backing up what we’re saying — they’re not authorized,” Otto said.

District Judge James Fabian ordered a halt to the Wabasha County Sheriff’s Safe Driving Class following a lawsuit filed by citizens including two current county commissioners that challenged the program’s legality. Begun in 2003, the class offered drivers tagged for speeding and other traffic violations the chance to pay $125 to take the course rather than pay a traffic fine. Where traffic fines would have been shared with the state, proceeds from the driving class went entirely to county coffers — more than $400,000 over the past decade.

The Minnesota state auditor had repeatedly warned the sheriff’s office that the classes violated state law. County prosecutors are permitted to offer pretrial diversion programs under state law. Local law enforcement is not.

Monday’s ruling applies only to Wabasha County but could trigger other similar legal challenges elsewhere in Minnesota. A November 2013 state auditor’s report indicated that there are nearly three dozen similar programs offered by local law enforcement that are not in compliance. Minnesota Attorney General’s Office spokesman Ben Wogsland said neither the attorney general nor the state auditor have the authority to enforce compliance, and that it’s up to local counties or the Legislature.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who leads the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee, said the time has come for the Legislature to act, either by bringing such programs into compliance with state law or clarifying that they are not permitted.

“These programs are very popular with the public,” Hilstrom said. “The Legislature needs to decide one way or another to make it clear.”

‘A shakedown’

In their lawsuit filed last year, the plaintiffs challenged the program as an illegal diversion of taxpayer money that otherwise would have gone to the state, providing revenue for the entire judicial system. The judge agreed, calling the program “a continued and repeated trespass on the laws of the state of Minnesota.”

“To continue to allow such a program to operate would most assuredly cause great and irreparable injury to individual taxpaying citizens,” Fabian wrote.

Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsch called the ruling a “total disappointment and a total shock” but said he has no plans to appeal. The program, which he claimed began with the Minnesota state auditor’s blessing, has resulted in a 99 percent approval rating from drivers who have taken it and subsequently been spared rising vehicle insurance costs. Bartsch said the additional revenue allowed his office to buy 16 to 17 squad cars. Otto said Bartsch “never got an official blessing” from the state auditor’s office.

“Our findings have been very clear,” Otto said.

Bartsch expressed frustration with County Commissioners Debra Roschen and David Harms, who sued the county after trying to do away with the program. “I’m not sure how they can sit on their own Board of Commissioners and say they’re working for the public, then work against them,” he said.

Erick Kaardal, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called the program “a shakedown” and said that its demise is “a great victory” for Minnesotans. “It shows that no one is above the law, not even the county sheriff,” he said. “And when the county sheriff is in violation of the law, it compromises their ability to enforce the law.”

Kaardal said he plans to file more lawsuits against similar classes if residents volunteer to become plaintiffs. The lawsuit so far has resonated in at least one jurisdiction. Lac qui Parle County suspended its program following the Wabasha County litigation.