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Port: The state must take the policing for profit incentive away from North Dakota's cities

No level of government should be motivated by revenue when crafting its criminal justice policies. That's clearly what's happening in many of North Dakota's cities, and it needs to stop.

The Fargo Municipal Court opened in 2010 at at 402 NP Ave., the former site of the Greyhound Bus terminal. Heidi Shaffer/The Forum
The Fargo Municipal Court opened in 2010 at at 402 NP Ave., the former site of the Greyhound Bus terminal. Heidi Shaffer/The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — "I saw your article about municipal judges," a reader emailed me recently.

"It was very interesting and timely," she continued. "The city of Horace recently announced they were hiring a municipal judge. Horace is a town of 3,000 people. Hard to understand why they felt they needed a municipal judge to hear, I assume, contested parking and speeding tickets?"

It's a good question. I can't speak to what's guiding the city leaders in Horace (fun fact: the city was named after newspaperman Horace Greeley, he of "go west, young man" fame), but when it comes to municipal courts in North Dakota, I would never discount profit as a motivation.

The way municipal courts are constituted in North Dakota is already deeply problematic. Of the state's 75 municipal judges, only 19 have formal legal training . The process for appealing the judgments made by these people is so narrow as to be almost nonexistent, and record-keeping from city to city is haphazard, at best.

So what's the point?

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It's revenue. City governments get to keep the money generated by violations of municipal ordinances per the North Dakota Century Code:

EMBED: ND Century Code excerpt municipal fines

There's a catch, though. If those violations are heard in district court, the cities have to split the revenue with the state per the law. If a city has a municipal court, however, they get to keep everything.

There is a profit motive for establishing municipal courts. That motivation is palpable in other public policy debates too.

Why have cities been fighting so hard to implement fines for speeding violations above state fines?

Because they get to keep the revenue.

Why are city governments lobbying to have municipal court judgments treated equivalently , for the purposes of collecting fines, to district court judgments?

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Because they get to keep the revenue.

Courts should be established to serve justice. Laws, and the fines we're obligated to pay for violating them, should serve a public interest. Speeding is a misdemeanor crime punishable by a fine because we want our roads to be safe, not because we want to generate revenue for the government.

Unfortunately, because cities get to keep the revenues from violations of municipal ordinances, they're prone to crafting ordinances in such a way as to create income instead of promoting justice and public safety.

This should change.

At the state level, the profit motive has been removed. If a county deputy or a trooper from the state Highway Patrol writes you a ticket for, say, speeding, your fine goes not to the state or county government's general fund but to the Common Schools Trust Fund , which has a dedicated mission to support education.

The revenues generated by municipal courts and violations of city ordinances should be similarly directed to that fund.

You could argue that this is already required. Section 2, Article IX, of the state constitution requires that "all fines for violation of state laws" should go to the Common Schools Trust Fund. City ordinances are authorized by state law; thus, violating a city ordinance is violating state law, and the resulting fees should, per the state constitution, go to the fund.

Instead, cities have been keeping those revenues.

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That should change, and if further legislation is needed to change it, that should happen.

No level of government should be motivated by revenue when crafting its criminal justice policies. That's clearly what's happening in many North Dakota's cities, and it needs to stop.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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