Defense Attorney: Tax Commissioner Paid Higher Than Normal Level of Fines

North Dakota Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger announces his campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for North Dakota Tax Commissioner office on Wednesday, Feb.5, 2014, at the Fargo Holiday Inn. David Samson / The Forum

Any time a public official is involved in a criminal action before the courts, and gets a plea deal, it’s natural to wonder if there was any special treatment involved.

Today Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger pleaded guilty to charges stemming from an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol last month, and I’m sure some are wondering if his political connections were a factor in his punishment. After all, there is a two-day mandatory jail sentence for people found guilty of a DUI charge with Rauschenberger’s level of recorded blood alcohol content, but the plea deal signed with the prosecutor doesn’t include jail time.

I asked Mark Friese, a Fargo-based defense attorney for the Vogel Law Firm who was also a police officer in Bismarck earlier in his career, about the deal. He says it’s not out of the normal, and that Rauschenberger actually paid a higher than normal amount in fines.

Here’s what he got:

The plea agreement was signed by the 34-year-old Republican tax commissioner, his attorney and Morton County Assistant State’s Attorney Austin Gunderson on Wednesday, Oct. 25, and approved by a Morton County district judge a day later.

Rauschenberger’s 10-day jail sentence will be suspended for 360 days, and he’ll be on unsupervised probation during that time. He’ll pay $1,250 in fines and fees and obtain a chemical dependency evaluation within three months.

“His sentence is wholly consistent with similar cases across the state,” Friese told me after reviewing the plea agreement (which you can read for yourself below). “This fellow actually paid more fines and fees than normal. A lot of jurisdictions impose larger fines in lieu of other penalties,” he added.

But what about the mandatory two-day jail sentence?

“His sentence is wholly consistent with similar cases across the state,” Friese told me after reviewing the plea agreement.

“The mandatory penalty for a first offense is $500 and a CD eval. If the alcohol concentration is .16 or above, the minimum fine is $750, and the sentence must include 2 days in jail or alternatively 20 hours of community service,” Friese told me. “Typically, offenders are given credit for prior custody time such as the day of the arrest. Further, for a first offense the statute allows electronic home monitoring in lieu of jail. Very few offenders actually serve two days in jail which, in my view, is a good thing.”

“DUI offenders should be focusing on evaluations, treatment, and rehabilitation,” he added. “There is nothing magical at all about two days in jail. It is an ill-conceived knee-jerk reaction to tragic cases several years ago. And, it’s arbitrary as hell. A .16 AC for some people is not that intoxicated, for others, they’re blotto.”

He also pointed out that this sort of plea deal isn’t unusual because, even in cases like Rauschenberger’s, a conviction is no sure bet. “It is quite common to have challenges regarding the efficacy, reliability, and admissibility of the chemical test evidence,” Friese told me. “Just because the record says .206 doesn’t mean that’s his actual concentration. Even the state toxicologist’s office will routinely testify about “variance” in the testing process.”

Here’s the full plea agreement:

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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