Drivers busted for speeding in Wabasha County have two choices: Cough up $127 for a speeding ticket and blemished driving record, or pay $125 to attend a driving safety class that will keep their records clean.
Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsh said his Safe Driving Class is responsible for a drop in traffic accidents in the southeast Minnesota county. The program's also brought in almost half a million dollars to the county -- some of which would have been kicked up to state coffers if officers had issued speeding tickets instead.
The problem with Wabasha County's safe driving program, according to some of the highest legal authorities in the state, is that it's illegal.
The county has maintained the program despite frequent reminders from state authorities that it's not in line with state law. But no Minnesota agency has stepped forward to stop it.
Since Bartsh started the classes in 2003, more than 4,500 people have gone through the two-hour program.
"We're seeing a lot less citations, and a lot more slowing down and being observant," Bartsh said. "And I think that comes from education."
The number of traffic accidents in Wabasha County has declined every year since 2006, even while state totals bounced up and down, according to Minnesota Department of Public Safety records.
Wabasha County brought in $417,348 in revenue from the safe driving classes between 2003 and the end of 2012, according to county records. In addition to covering the cost of the classes, the revenue brought in has been used to buy items like snow plows, office furniture and squad cars.
"All of the money is staying here locally and it's helping offset our tax base, which the citizens are thrilled with -- especially once they find out somebody's trying to take it away," Bartsh said.
“All of the money is staying here locally and it's helping offset our tax base, which the citizens are thrilled with...”Rodney Bartsh, Wabasha County sheriff
Wabasha County is not alone. The Office of the State Auditor has warned at least five other counties about similar programs in the last two years, including Goodhue County, Norman County, Grant County, Kandiyohi County and Sherburne County.
In last year's audit of Wabasha County, the auditor wrote that while Minnesota law allows a trial court to order a convicted person to attend a driver improvement class, local officials don't have the ability to run what's called a "pretrial diversion program."
Wabasha County Attorney James Nordstrom did not respond to requests for comment, but in his reply to the 2012 audit, he wrote that the program is not based on administrative tickets, but on "prosecutorial discretion and the county attorney's decision to prefer driver education over in-court prosecution."
The Minnesota Office of the State Auditor's annual audit of Wabasha County has recommended the county stop offering safe driving classes in lieu of speeding tickets every year since 2008.
Sheriff Bartsh is unmoved by the recommendations from the state auditor, saying that he will rely instead on legal advice from the Wabasha County Attorney.
"If somebody can prove that something else is working, that a bunch of tickets and a whole bunch of money heading to the State Capitol is working, I would have a hard time believing it -- because it's not," Bartsh said.
A CHALLENGE FROM INSIDE THE COUNTY
The program isn't controversial only on the state level, but within the county itself. Two Wabasha County commissioners are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed on Aug. 21 challenging the program.
"They're concerned that if our law enforcement officials are allowed to violate the law, that it will compromise the moral authority of the same law enforcement officials to enforce the law," said Erick Kaardal, the attorney representing the plaintiffs.
“The county sheriff refuses to comply with the law because he doesn't want to share the money.”Erick Kaardal, attorney
An effort by the two county commissioners to end the safe driving program failed on Aug. 20, and helped spur the lawsuit.
"Minnesota state law requires that these programs be authorized and that money be shared, about $85 per violation or so, with the state," Kaardal said. "The county sheriff refuses to comply with the law because he doesn't want to share the money."
Kaardal also named the Offices of State Auditor and Minnesota Attorney General in the suit. He said the plaintiffs hope it pushes the state agencies to enforce the law.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General said his office doesn't have enforcement authority in this area.
State Auditor Rebecca Otto said her agency's responsibility is to present the governing body of the local government with the report. They then have the ability to take action.
"If the county has something they think is a really great program, and it's not authorized under state law, they can certainly go to the Legislature and try to change the law," Otto said.
BILL WAITING FOR START OF LEGISLATURE
A bill introduced last session in the Legislature may at least clarify the issue, according to the authors, Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, and Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing.
“Ultimately, the public likes these diversion programs. They like to be able to take a class, and if it's their first ticket, not have it show up on their record.”Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center
Hilstrom said a legislative update in 2009 left counties confused about the legality of programs like these safe driving classes.
"Ultimately, the public likes these diversion programs. They like to be able to take a class, and if it's their first ticket, not have it show up on their record," Hilstrom said. "We just want to make sure that whatever program there is complies with the law."
But Schmit admits the text of the bill offered last session will only address some of the issues that have arisen from safe driving programs -- for instance, whether they can be run out of a sheriff's office as well as a court.
"We should clarify exactly what is meant by this court-administered fine program and these diversion programs and how they can operate under law."
He said he's already prepared a big push on the bill in the 2014 session.
"We want consistency, and we want to clarify the law, we want the law to work," Schmit said. "We want these diversion programs that are thoughtful, that have benefits to the communities and to motorists in general."
Although Schmit said he preferred to keep the debate about policy separate from the fiscal impact, he's keeping an open mind on whether counties like Wabasha that have been raking in the cash would have to give some of it back.
"You certainly want to be cognizant of the fact that folks who may be interpreting the law one way may be rewarded a certain way, and those who may be interpreting it another way may face a negative consequence of a law change," he said.
A crystal-clear new law from the Legislature would be enough to convince even Sheriff Rodney Bartsh, who said his main concern is the well-being of the citizens of Wabasha County.
"If the Legislature changes this, and says, 'Sheriff, you need to send all the money to the state,' I will start a program and won't charge anything. I'll ask people to give a charitable donation," Bartsh said. "I'm going to keep doing the class."