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Tougher criminal penalties proposed

BISMARCK -- Two high school football referees were roughed up during a game in New Town last fall. A state senator who moonlights as a football official once needed security guard's help to safely get off a college field.

BISMARCK -- Two high school football referees were roughed up during a game in New Town last fall. A state senator who moonlights as a football official once needed security guard's help to safely get off a college field.

And other states are doing it.

That's all some legislators need to create a new criminal offense: "assaulting a sports official."

House Bill 1208 is one of many proposals North Dakota lawmakers have introduced creating new crimes and ratcheting up penalties on existing crimes.

Issues range from traffic offenses to homicide. Most are requested by police and groups that want more protection.


The one that creates a special class of crimes at sporting events is sponsored by Rep. Lyle Hanson, D-Jamestown, who refereed sports for 25 years and is in the state referee hall of fame.

Hanson's bill makes it a class A misdemeanor to assault a sports official, which carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

It's already a crime to assault people, whether they are sports officials, abused spouses or anybody else, except that minor assault on most people is a class B misdemeanor, which carries a maximum of 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"Behavior towards referees has gotten on the borderline of out of control," said Ron Wright, one of the referees assaulted at New Town last fall. "I think the time is probably right for it."

Colleagues tell him fan behavior in North Dakota has worsened markedly in the past five years.

Sen. Joel Heitkamp, D-Hankinson, is a part-time football referee.

He said the vast majority of people are sportsmanlike, but he worked one college game "where I had to have security come and take us off the field."

Hanson got the idea from the National Conference of State Legislatures.


"It's something we can at least look at," he said.

One crime-related bill sends shivers through the state's director of corrections. House Bill 1188 stiffens penalties available for felons. It would increase the maximum penalty for a class C felony from five years to 10, for a class B felony from 10 years to 20 and for a class A felony from 20 to 30.

Prime sponsor Rep. Mike Grosz, R-Grand Forks, introduced it at the request of a University of North Dakota police officer. The officer told him of a case in which a person was killed and the prosecution could not prove intent, so it was classified as a class C felony. The maximum penalty was only five years.

Director of Corrections Elaine Little, whose department struggles to find enough prison beds, isn't wild about Grosz's bill. "We're concerned anytime sentences are lengthened because of the impact on the prisons division."

Grosz is sympathetic.

"I understand that," he said, and has another bill to allow for "electronic incarceration" of some convicts, using ankle bracelets.

The felony sentencing bill is assigned to the House Judiciary Committee but not yet set for a hearing.

Other bills include:


E FLEEING POLICE -- House Bill 1220 and Senate Bill 2164 make the first offense of fleeing or attempting to elude peace officers a felony. Fargo and West Fargo police chiefs requested the bill, said sponsors Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, and Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo. Currently it's a class A misdemeanor for the first offense and a felony for subsequent offenses. After a Senate hearing Friday, another hearing is at 9 a.m. Thursday in House Transportation.

E LURING MINORS -- Another bill introduced at the request of Fargo-West Fargo police makes luring a minor for sex by computer a class C felony for all offenses. Currently the first offense is a class A misdemeanor. It is Senate Bill 2163 and is set for a hearing at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

E CIVIL PROCESS -- Senate Bill 2170 makes it a class B misdemeanor for anyone to resist civil process by "any officer or other authorized person." It was introduced by Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, on behalf of a private investigator. The PI has a contract with the local sheriff's department to serve civil papers and currently it is not a crime to resist process by someone other than a law enforcement officer. The hearing is at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in House Judiciary.

E DRIVER'S LICENSE SURRENDER -- House Bill 1277 rewrites the law that requires you to hand your driver's license to a law enforcement officer when you're operating a vehicle. Current language says drivers must "display" their licenses upon demand. Sen. Judy Lee said people have found the loophole and refuse to let the officer take it out of their hands so he can write the ticket in his car. New language will require drivers to "physically surrender" the license when asked.

E DUI THRESHOLD -- House Bill 1161 lowers the blood-alcohol concentration for a DUI from .10 percent to .08 percent. The state will lose federal highway dollars if it does not lower the limit this year. The hearing is 2:30 p.m. Thursday in House Transportation.

E CONSTRUCTION ZONES -- House Bill 1322 would raise the minimum fine for speeding in a highway construction zone from $40 to $80. It will be heard at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in House Transportation.

E CHILD RESTRAINTS -- House Bill 1253 raises the cut-off age at which children in vehicles can graduate from a child restraint system to a regular seat belt. Currently the law says children under 4 are to be in an approved child restraint. The bill makes it children under 5.

E EMERGENCY VEHICLES -- House Bill 1319 expands the prohibition on drivers following emergency vehicles. It makes it a crime to stop your vehicle within 500 feet of a fire truck that is at a fire scene.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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