MINOT, N.D. — Having a license to drive in a place like North Dakota is nearly a necessity.
There are a lot of long roads home in our spread-out, mostly rural state, and for many months in a year, the weather makes walking or biking deeply uncomfortable, if not downright unsafe.
Public transportation, where it's even available, is typically not very practical. Not having a license in our state means great difficulty in getting to work, getting kids to school, and getting to the grocery store.
Given these realities, one would hope that the state of North Dakota would approach a legal proceeding in which a citizen might see their driving privileges removed with a high degree of diligence and respect. License suspension, or revocation, is, without a doubt, an appropriate remedy in the right circumstances, but it's not an outcome we should take lightly.
Unfortunately, in the last year, the North Dakota Department of Transportation perpetrated an enormous screwup in how they handle license suspension/revocation proceedings. Yet when the issue came before the state Supreme Court, the response from our justices was the judicial equivalent of a shoulder shrug.
At issue is the signature of one Mr. Glenn Jackson, former director of the NDDOT's licensing division.
In February of 2019, Jackson was on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation into inappropriate behavior with subordinates. In May of that year, Jackson chose to resign without ever having been reinstated to his duties.
Yet during those months, the NDDOT continued to use Jackson's signature to certify records in legal proceedings concerning license suspensions.
Here's an example of one such signature, used in a license suspension case, dated in April of 2019 while Jackson was on suspension.
Unless the NDDOT was allowing him to sneak into his office, that could not possibly be Jackson's signature because Jackson was suspended in April of 2019. I have tried to get the NDDOT to comment on how Jackson's signature was able to appear on this sort of document despite his suspension. They've declined comment.
This bogus use of Jackson's signature has, as you might expect, become the basis of several appeals. I wrote about one in January, but another case pertaining, at least in part, to Jackson's signature was just ruled on by the State Supreme Court.
Their reaction to this situation?
You can read the full opinion below. The case had to do with a license suspension for a man arrested for driving under the influence. Here's an excerpt illustrating the court's reaction to the NDDOT's use of a bogus signature:
It doesn't matter, says the court, that the NDDOT claimed a man, who could not possibly have signed his signature, certified these records because they were confirmed by other means.
At this point, you may be wondering what the big deal is. If the records ultimately got certified, despite Jackson's phony-baloney signature, what's the problem?
Remember that one of the most critical lines of defense we have against government abuse is the work of defense attorneys. When they uncover wrongs committed by the government, there should be consequences.
If you or I used a bogus signature to certify documents as the NDDOT did, there could be legal consequences for us.
Section 12.1-11-02 of the North Dakota Century Code states, "A person is guilty of a class A misdemeanor if, in an official proceeding, he makes a false statement, whether or not material, under oath or equivalent affirmation, or swears or affirms the truth of such a statement previously made, if he does not believe the statement to be true."
Further, Section 12.1-11-05 states that you're guilty of tampering with a public record if you, "Knowingly makes a false entry in or false alteration of a government record."
That's a class C felony if it's "committed by a public servant who has custody of the government record."
What's frustrating about this situation is there has been zero accountability for the NDDOT. They're not talking publicly about how it happened. From the outside looking in, it doesn't appear as though anyone in the executive branch has taken any corrective action, from Gov. Doug Burgum on down.
Now the courts have decided to let the NDDOT get away with it too, displaying a degree of deference I'm not sure the justices would show someone in the private sector.
By the way, remember that the NDDOT is the same state agency that has used exaggerated fiscal notes to try and manipulate the legislative process, something lawmakers decried in floor speeches last year.
Something needs to happen at that agency to restore some integrity to how they do business.
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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.