MINOT, N.D. — The Fargo City Commission has decided to delay implementation of hikes to local traffic fines because one commissioner, John Strand, is worried about the potential for a lawsuit per this story from Barry Amundson.
Strand is right to be concerned.
Unfortunately, city officials like Police Chief David Todd are relying on input from, among other sources, lawyers at the League of Cities: Todd said [Assistant City Attorney Nancy] Morris conferred with North Dakota Legislative and League of Cities lawyers and they are confident that, with the new state law, they are on solid legal ground to raise the fines, according to the story.
I wonder if these are the same lawyers who said Fargo was on sound legal footing the last time they got taken to the cleaners over raising traffic fines?
The League of Cities is a lobbying group representing, well, North Dakota's cities. The city governments pay big-money dues to that group to be members. If the League's lawyers are all wet on this, can the city of Fargo get a discount on future dues payments?
Probably not. Which illustrates the problem in this whole mess. The city commissioners and Chief Todd and all the other politicians and bureaucrats in the other cities which have already raised fines (Bismarck, West Fargo and Grand Forks) are playing this game with other people's money.
If they get sued, the taxpayers pick up the tab.
Remember, the settlement in the previous fines lawsuit Fargo faced was $1.5 million, and that's not counting the city's legal fees.
The Constitution requires equal protection under the law. Unfortunately, the state Legislature passed SB2304 earlier this year (introduced by Bismarck Democrat Sen. Erin Oban) local communities the go-ahead to violate our equal protection rights.
That bill allows locals to increase traffic fines up to double state levels. Where the equal protection problem comes in is that, when locals raise their fines, it creates a situation where the fine you face for something like speeding may hinge on what uniform the officer writing the ticket is wearing.
If Fargo raises its fines, someone pulled over for speeding in that city would face a higher fine if the officer is with the Fargo Police Department. That person would face a lower fine, for the exact same infraction happening in the exact same location under the exact same set of circumstances if the officer is a Cass County deputy or a Highway Patrol trooper.
The North Dakota Supreme Court has been clear about these sort of situations: “[w]hen two statutes prohibit the same conduct but result in different penalties a person suffering the more serious penalty has been denied equal protection of the laws.”
The proponents of locals raising fines say they're on sound legal ground because the Legislature changed the law and gave locals permission to do this. But the state Legislature did not, and could not, amend the 14th Amendment which requires that states afford all citizens equal treatment under the law.
Different fines, based on different cops, for the exact same infraction, is not equal treatment under the law.
The cities which have already raised local fines are going to be sued. It's inevitable.
Fargo's choice is whether or not to be a co-defendant.
And by the way, the better solution to the problem of too-low traffic fines (and they really are too low) isn't a patchwork of differing local fines around the state. The solution is raising the already perfectly legal and uniform state-level fines.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.