County backs driver education program despite court ruling

Chisago County officials remain supportive of the county’s driver awareness program in wake of a legal challenge and recent court ruling against a similar driving class in Wabasha County.

“The Wabasha County case dealt only with the legality of that program and did not involve Chisago County’s program,” Chisago County Sheriff Rick Duncan said in response to a Post Review inquiry on the issue. “We believe our program is consistent with existing law.”

The Sheriff’s Office implemented the Chisago County Driver Awareness Program in May 2013, a citation diversion effort that also received approval in North Branch. It is designed for drivers cited with certain non-serious speed, moving and equipment violations who may attend a traffic safety course rather than face prosecution and conviction for the traffic offense.

Upon successful completion of this two-hour traffic safety course, the driver’s traffic citation is voided and no citation is filed with the court.

Meanwhile, a similar program in Wabasha County started to come under scrutiny by members of that county board’s leadership. Commissioners Dave Harms and Deb Roschen believed the Wabasha County Safe Driving Class violated state law, and they attempted to bring it into compliance by proposing a county board resolution in August 2013.

The resolution, however, was rejected for lack of discussion by the board majority, according to a press release provided by a group of “citizen taxpayers” called the Association for Government Accountability.

As a result, Harms and Roschen felt they were left with two choices.

“As elected commissioners, we could continue to knowingly break the law, or we could have this matter resolved in the court,” Harms said in the release.

Going with the latter option, Harms and Roschen were joined by former commissioner Merl Norman, driving class participant Lynn Cliff and the Association for Government Accountability as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against state and county department officials.

Houston County Judge James Fabian released his ruling by court order, signed Jan. 6, finding the program was unauthorized and indeed violated state law.

“Wabasha County has enacted and operated a diversion program that infringes upon the power of the state to uniformly manage traffic offenses in the state of Minnesota,” the court order stated. “The Safe Driving Class is not legally authorized under Minnesota law.”

The order concluded, “The court finds that a permanent injunction is the only available remedy under the law. The Wabasha County Sheriff’s Department shall be enjoined from conducting all activities related to the Safe Driving Class.”

Prior to filing the lawsuit, the Association for Government Accountability noted the state Auditor’s Office “had for some time warned the county of the safe driving class illegalities but chose to do nothing about it.”

The ruling now raises questions on whether or not the Wabasha County Sheriff’s Office will have to reimburse the $400,000-plus the Safe Driving Class had generated since its inception to the state, the release said.

In a Jan. 17 phone interview with the Post Review, Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter confirmed the county was aware of the Wabasha County court order and found that it did not have any bearing on Chisago County’s program.

For one, Reiter said the county views its program as “somewhat different” and “varies” from what was instituted in Wabasha County. Second, “We are not mandated to take action from that court order; it has no jurisdiction over us,” she noted.

The goal of the Chisago County Driver Awareness Program is to offer a community-based educational program on driving and safety, while drivers are given an option when certain violations occur.

Drivers cannot participate in the program if they have had a moving violation conviction within the past two years or have participated in the program within the past 12 months. Drivers may only take the course twice in a lifetime, and only petty misdemeanors are eligible for the program.

“The Chisago County Driver Awareness Program is based on the discretion of law enforcement, which must be exercised consistently with the policies of the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office,” Duncan said. “The program is not a prosecution or judicial-based diversion program.”

Regarding the fees charged for the program, the sheriff said they are used to defray the cost of administering the course and to improve community involvement and education. So far, the program has generated $30,000 for administrative costs over the six months the program has been in existence, explained Duncan, noting the amount does not include the cities that have used the course.

The fee also is less than the fee and surcharges that a driver would incur by simply paying the citation that otherwise may be issued, he noted.

“The Sheriff’s Office believes the (program) increases public safety in our county,” added Duncan, noting he has received positive feedback from those who have completed the program. “Improving public safety and enriching our quality of life in this county will continue to be our goal. I believe this program does just that.”

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