By Kristen Miller
Meeker and Wright counties are among 36 counties and cities in the state involved in a class action lawsuit for offering a driver diversion program in lieu of fines or court filing for minor traffic offenses.
This comes after a southern Minnesota district court ordered Wabasha County in January to halt its program after a similar lawsuit was brought forth.
Since 2005, Meeker County has offered such a program to those eligible with the goal of educating drivers about traffic laws and making the roads safer, according to Meeker County Attorney Anthony Spector.
That decision is now being challenged by plaintiffs, many of whom attended a traffic diversion program in one of the entities listed on the complaint, who now want their money returned for fees paid to what they claim to be an illegal program.
In the most recent Meeker County state auditor’s report, it states that in 2009 the attorney general addressed the issue of a driver improvement course in lieu of a ticket or a penalty.
After reviewing the law, the attorney general stated “All such programs, however, require that a trial court make the determination as to whether attendance at such a [driver’s] clinic is appropriate. We are aware of no express authority for local officials to create a pretrial diversion program.”
The state auditor recommended the county comply with the statute and subsequent legislation stating the program was “unauthorized and in violation [of state statute]”
In the county’s response noted in the report, it “respectfully” disagreed with the auditor’s findings and recommendations.
“We believe we have the authority to do this under prosecutorial discretion,” said Spector.
Meeker County Sheriff Jeff Norlin said that the law is ambiguous and needs to be clarified at the state level.
He also noted that if one of the district judges in Meeker County suggested the program was illegal, they would suspend it.
Representative Dean Urdahl (R-Acton Township) commented on the matter: “I think there is a lot of value in the driver diversion program. However I think that there is ambiguity in the state law. I think that it is not [permitted] as far as what Meeker County is doing and there needs to be clarity in the state law to allow the driver diversion program to continue.”
Wright County is also on the list of entities being sued for offering the program, which it calls Drive Wright.
Its program has been offered since 2005, according to Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly.
On Friday, Kelly was at the Capitol to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of proposed legislation that would allow traffic diversion programs.
Kelly said he believes these programs do good things for the citizens and that the attorney’s office has inherent discretion to offer the classes since as county attorneys they determine whether or not a person is charged in a case.
He also said he can’t believe that anyone can claim damages (of up to $2 million) for such diversion classes taken voluntarily. “No one is forced to go through the program,” he said.
The complaint cites the purpose of the class action is for damages and injunctive relief regarding unlawful pretrial diversion safe driving classes. Claims include “conversion, taking of property, violations, false advertisement act, senior Citizens and disabled persons act through Minnesota’s private attorney general statute.”
“I’m not sure where the damages lie,” Kelly said. He noted that it begs the question at to whether the plaintiffs would rather subject themselves to paying the original fines or court appearances as opposed to the $75 fee they paid for the course (in most cases).
Meeker County’s program was approved at the time by the county attorney, Stephanie Beckman, and Third Judicial District Judge Steven Drange.
The program is geared toward minor traffic offenses, such as speeding no more than 15 miles per hour over the speed limit, stop sign violations, failure to signal, and seat belt violations. Those with multiple violations, accident-related or major violations, are ineligible for the program.
The violator has five days to make contact with the county attorney’s office to schedule for the next class. If not, the ticket must be paid or it’s turned over to the court system.
Norlin explained that initially the program was created to act as a less costly alternative for young drivers.
The program saves the driver from paying the fine, avoids the violation from the driver’s traffic history, and won’t increase insurance premiums, Norlin explained.
The fee for the class is $75, and goes toward the instructor of the two-hour class.
Since the program began nine years ago, the county has had 1,140 attend its program, which has generated $85,000 or roughly $9,500 a year, depending on attendance.
Norlin notes that the “program was never intended to be a money-maker” for the county.
Of the 1,140 who attended the course, 14 percent were referred not by deputies, but by district court judges in Meeker County, the county attorney’s office, or probation, according to Norlin.
“If the program is stopped, we estimate between 40-60 additional citations would go directly to the court per year,” Norlin commented.
Several counties and cities on the list of defendants have since ceased their programs, including McLeod County and the City of Howard Lake.
“At the end of the day, it’s a good opportunity to educate the public and make roads safer,” Spector commented.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said of the lawsuit, “It’s a program that worked.”