North Dakota's Pre-Filed Bills: Mandatory Sentencing Exemptions And Driverless Cars!


The 2015 session of North Dakota’s Legislature is looming. It begins next month on January 6th, and already bills and resolutions are being pre-filed for consideration.

I read through what’s been posted online so far – 110 bills and 7 resolutions in the House, 102 bills and 6 resolutions in the Senate – and picked out some legislation I found particularly interesting (setting aside some of the issues like property tax reform, etc., which have already gotten a lot of coverage).

As I wrote yesterday, the Legislature has averaged roughly 626 introduced bills per biennium since 1983, though that number is down in recent years (surprisingly, since the amount of money lawmakers have to spend has gone way, way up thanks to the oil boom). If that average holds for this session, the 212 bills filed so far represents about a third of the total bills we’ll see.

You can see a listing of all the bills filed so far by clicking here (scroll down to click on the House Bills and Senate Bills links). These are the bills which caught my eye:

HB1030 – Exemptions from mandatory sentencing laws

This bill would allow judges to set aside mandatory sentencing requirements if such a sentence would result in “manifest injustice,” defined as punishment “unreasonably harsh or shocking to the conscience of a reasonable individual, with due consideration of the totality of circumstances.”

Judges would be prohibited from using the exemption in certain violent or sex-related crimes, and the courts would have to file an annual report detailing the number of times such exemptions are used.

The bill was introduced by Legislative Management.

HB1065 – Regulations for autonomous vehicles

As a science fiction dork I’ve got to say that this bill delighted me. The idea of self-driving cars may still seem far-fetched, but the future may be closer than we realize.  “Audi, BMW, GM, Nissan, Toyota, and Volvo all have announced plans to unveil an autonomous car by 2020,” an article in Fast Company stated recently. Google says to watch for its public debut of its prototype in 2016.”

That’s two years from now, and before the 2017 Legislative session. Clearly, the future is now, and it makes sense that lawmakers would look to adapt our law this emerging technology.

The bill sets out guidelines through which autonomous vehicles can be tested in the state. It also sets requirement such vehicles must meet before they may be registered and directs the Department of Motor Vehicles to develop regulations for the operation of autonomous vehicles on our roads.

Rep. Ben Hanson, a Democrat from Fargo, is the primary sponsor with Senator Lonnie Laffen (R-Grand Forks) backing it in the Senate.

SB2030 – Lowers penalties for drug paraphernalia

Like the mandatory sentencing law exemption above, this bill was proposed as a way to ease the strain on our crowded prisons. “If you want to see who’s clogging up the jail cells, just look at drug paraphernalia,” Leann Bertsch, director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told the Bismarck Tribune in August.

The bill lowers penalty for possessing drug paraphernalia for all drugs but marijuana from a Class C Felony to a Class A Misdemeanor. Marijuana paraphernalia goes down to a Class B Misdemeanor.

This bill was introduced by Legislative Management.

SB2070 – Immunity for people who report drug overdoses

This isn’t a new issue. In the 2013 session Rep. Marie Strinden – a Democrat from Grand Forks – introduced HB1412 which would have given immunity from prosecution to those reporting an overdose of alcohol. Obviously, this was aimed at underage drinkers who might not take a friend to the hospital out of fear of legal consequences. The House actually passed Strinden’s bill unanimously, but when the Senate approved it they amended it to include drug overdoses, which proved a bridge too far for the House. The amended bill failed 34-49.

Rep. Rick Becker, a Republican of Bismarck, gave what I thought was a particularly eloquent speech in favor of the bill on the House floor before it failed.

This session SB2070 is sponsored by Senator Howard Anderson (Republican from Turtle Lake) and Rep. Becker. It applies only to drug overdoses and requires those seeking immunity under its provisions “must have remained on the scene until assistance arrived and cooperated with emergency medical services and law enforcement personnel in the medical treatment of the reported drug overdosed individual.” It also limits the number of people who can get immunity in any given incident to three.

HB1078 – Ban on selling e-cigarettes to kids

This bill, sponsored by Rep. Diane Larson (R-Bismarck) in the House and Senator David Rust (R-Tioga) in the Senate, will probably sail through. North Dakota is just one of 10 states that hasn’t yet banned the sale of e-cigarettes to kids. And since the anti-tobacco crusaders are intent on treating vaping the same as smoking (despite the lack of burning tobacco in the former), the public probably won’t mind.

But as I’ve written previously, should we be restricting the use of a safer alternative to smoking for anyone?

HB1033 – No withdrawals from Legacy Fund until oil taxes drop

North Dakota voters cast their ballots to add Section 26 to Article X of the North Dakota Constitution which establishes the Legacy Fund. That fund gets 30 percent of the state’s oil tax revenues. Starting after this next biennium, which ends on June 30th of 2017, lawmakers can spend the earnings from the fund and, if they can get a 2/3’s majority, up to 15 percent of the principle as well in any given biennium.

This bill doesn’t amend the constitution (because that would require a resolution), but instead states that it is the intent of the Legislature to hold off on spending any of the Legacy Fund’s earnings until certain revenue thresholds are met.

The specific language: “It is the intent of the legislative assembly that the earnings of the legacy fund continue to accumulate as part of the principal of the fund until either oil and gas tax collections for a biennium decrease by at least twenty – five percent from the previous biennium or the earnings of the legacy fund for a biennium exceed thirty – three percent of the oil and gas tax collections for the same biennium.”

The bill was introduced by Legislative Management

HB1058 – Notice to property owner of proposed tax hikes

There is nothing that keeps North Dakotans pissed off, from one legislative session to the next, like property taxes. And a lot of the problem is that the process of how the tax is formulated and levied is hugely complicated. As such, the legislature is considering a number of bills to make the process more transparent. One aim is to move away from talking about property taxes in terms of mill levies, replacing it with actual dollars. Another is HB1058, introduced by Legislative Management, which would require any taxing authority considering a tax hike to notify property owners of the proposal, what it would mean for their tax bill in dollars, and when there will be a public hearing on the proposal.

You may wonder why that’s not already being done. And then you’d realize that the fact the Legislature has to make this a law is why people are so perpetually upset about property taxes.

SB2076 – Study water retention as alternative to Fargo Flood diversion

The Fargo flood diversion project has become hugely controversial. Initially Fargo-area leaders tried to big-foot opposition from those outside of the metro area who opposed the project, but then the State of Minnesota took issue as well and now the project has been slowed down.

I doubt Fargo-area leaders are going to be pleased with the Legislature launching a study into an alternative to the diversion they’ve already decided is the best solution, but it’ll be welcome news to opponents. Expect this one to be acrimonious.

HB1084 – Restrictions on when cops can pull you over

This is an interesting bill in light of a ruling just handed down by the Supreme Court. With just one Justice dissenting, the SCOTUS found that a search of a person’s vehicle was lawful even though the officer didn’t have a lawful reason for pulling the driver over.

HB1084, backed by Rep. Rick Becker in the House and Senator Kelly Armstrong (R-Dickinson) in the Senate, would stop law enforcement officers from pulling you over just to check no compliance with a whole list of laws:


You can read those named chapters here. Put simply, this law prevents a police officer from pulling you over to make sure your vehicle is registered unless he has a reasonable suspicion that it isn’t (e.g. your tabs aren’t up to date).

I asked Senator Armstrong about the bill, and he said it’s a prohibition on “papers please” stops. That seems reasonable but expect law enforcement, who are generally in favor of being able to pull you over whenever they want to, to object.

Other Bills Of Note

Here’s some other legislation that jumped out at me as interesting:

  • HB1043 – Tuition freeze at the state’s two-year universities
  • HB1051 – The latest shot in the war over open records between the Legislature and the universities, this would require that the universities maintain a retention policy for their emails
  • HB1069 – Require that every local taxing authority create a property tax information website
  • HB1085 and HB1083 – The first requires an annual report on the use of federal funds by state agencies, the second requests a study into the requirements put on the states by federal regulations
  • SB2099 – Expands the maximum wager in sports betting pools from $5 to $25, because you were totally keeping your bets under $5 before
  • HB1087 – Requirement that North Dakota high school students take the same civics test immigrants take as a part of their citizenship process,and they have to get at least 60 percent right
  • SB2096 – Would eliminate the sales tax on internet service