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Safe-driving classes coming to sudden halt after judge's order

  • Article by: Abby Simons
  • Star Tribune
  • January 15, 2014 - 7:11 AM

Officials across the state are now suspending their own programs in hopes of avoiding similar legal challenges, but they say it’s time for the Legislature to craft a permanent remedy.

District Judge James Fabian’s ruling halted the Wabasha County sheriff’s safe driving class after two county commissioners sued, alleging that law enforcement for years flouted a state law that prohibits such classes. Fabian agreed, calling the program “a continued and repeated trespass on the laws of the state of Minnesota.”

The programs allow motorists to keep traffic violations off their driving records in exchange for paying to take a class. They also provide a boon for the cities and counties that run them. From 2010 to 2012, such classes raised about $1.6 million, according to a report by State Auditor Rebecca Otto. While about a third of proceeds from most traffic tickets go to the state, most jurisdictions kept all of the fees generated from their classes.

In the week since Fabian’s ruling, at least 15 of the three dozen cities and counties that operated similar classes have closed the programs. It’s a reversal from recent years, where the number of programs grew, despite warnings from the auditor that such “off-the-books” alternatives were illegal. Although some diversion programs are allowed under Minnesota law, they must be approved by prosecutors.

“We had a program that we felt was a good asset for the people and was able to be self-sustaining financially,” said Goodhue County Attorney Stephen Betcher, who nevertheless has advised his County Board to suspend its class in the wake of the Wabasha ruling. “But it seemed like the prospects for prevailing in any kind of district court challenge would not be very great.”

It’s unclear what other jurisdictions might do. Spring Lake Park recently announced plans for its own program, as did Rice County and the cities of Faribault and Northfield. Renville County Sheriff Scott Hable pulled the plug on his program last week, but said, “My hope is that the Legislature will revisit this in their upcoming session and give us some further guidance.”

Wabasha County Commissioner Deb Roschen, one of the plaintiffs whose suit led to the order, said that she and fellow Commissioner David Harms sued, in part, because the state knew what was happening but didn’t stop the classes.

“We spent thousands of dollars of our own money on this lawsuit, and there was no benefit of this to me other than knowing I did the right thing,” Roschen said. “This is the state’s job. I’m not an attorney, and I shouldn’t have to hire an attorney. The attorney general and auditor are there to monitor the government in part, and if they aren’t holding them accountable, what’s the point?”

Attorney General’s Office spokesman Ben Wogsland had said last week that neither the attorney general nor the state auditor has the authority to enforce compliance.

Attorney Erick Kaardal, who represented the plaintiffs, said he will consider suing in other jurisdictions if there are willing participants.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, lives in Wabasha County and said that it’s time for the laws to be explicit and obeyed.

“The question that people need to ask is why is it that we have been allowing our government to violate the law. They can legitimize it by saying it’s popular, but that’s not a rationale or a reason,” Drazkowski said.

“The rule of law has to be followed, and in the case of law enforcement you end up diminishing the moral authority of the very people you entrust to make sure it’s carried out.”

 

Abby Simons • 651-925-5043

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