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Judge accepts former North Dakota Highway Patrol trooper's guilty plea in sexual assault case

A plea agreement accepted on Friday, April 22, states the trooper pleads guilty to disorderly conduct, receiving a 360-day deferred imposition of sentence which comes with one year of unsupervised probation and a $250 fine. Approximately two months after the trooper's probation ends, the guilty plea will be withdrawn and the case will be taken off his record.

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Former North Dakota Highway Patrol Lieutenant Steven Johnson
Contributed / North Dakota Highway Patrol

BISMARCK — A former North Dakota Highway Patrol trooper received one year of unsupervised probation after pleading guilty to a disorderly conduct charge in which prosecutors say he inappropriately touched a woman.

Steven Johnson was charged with sexual assault last November for allegedly touching a woman without her consent at a party in a Bismarck residence in December 2020. The North Dakota Highway Patrol fired Johnson after the sexual assault charge was filed last November. The former Highway Patrol lieutenant oversaw patrols in southwest North Dakota and was part of the governor's security detail.

On Friday, April 22, hours before Johnson was scheduled to have a final dispositional hearing ahead of his May jury trial, South Central District Court Judge James Hill accepted a plea agreement for a lesser disorderly conduct charge, according to court filings. Hill previously rejected a plea agreement for the charge in February.

The new plea agreement states Johnson pleads guilty to disorderly conduct and will receive a 360-day deferred imposition of sentence which comes with one year of unsupervised probation and a $250 fine. Approximately two months after Johnson's probation ends, the guilty plea will be withdrawn and the case taken off his record.

The new agreement states that in December 2020, Johnson and a group of friends were socializing at his residence. All of them were in a hot tub, except the victim who was laying down by herself on Johnson's couch.

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"While she was lying on the sofa, (Johnson) reached over the couch and rubbed her neckline, arm, down to the bottom of her ribcage, across her stomach and back up," the agreement states. The woman made a sound and subsequently pushed his hand away and Johnson "immediately stopped all physical contact," according to the agreement.

In court filings, prosecutor Katie Nechiporenko said she had been in contact with the woman, who agreed to the conditions of the new plea deal, stating the prosecution and the victim "believe that this agreement is an acceptable and satisfactory outcome for the case."

Ryan Younggren, a special assistant state's attorney prosecuting the case, told The Forum the approved plea agreement was "middle ground" for both Johnson and the prosecution.

"It was reached after much discussion and negotiation and also taking into account the uncertainties of a trial and also spending significant time with the victim in this matter," Younggren said, adding that the woman was consulted throughout the entire case.

He said dropping the initial sexual assault charge was part of the plea negotiation process, adding that in cases such as this one trials can be challenging for victims.

"Trial is not always the best way to resolve a case," Younggren said.

In February, Johnson and prosecutors reached a plea agreement for a lesser charge of disorderly conduct — a Class B misdemeanor. However, Hill rejected the plea agreement. Under this first disorderly conduct plea agreement, Johnson admitted to "touching (the woman's) arm and neck in attempt to wake her up," but Hill said these actions did not meet the definition of "reckless" under North Dakota's disorderly conduct statute and rejected the plea agreement.

Johnson's attorney, Chris Redmann, did not immediately respond to The Forum's request for comment.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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