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Wabasha driving class declared illegal

A judge ruled Monday that a Wabasha County ticket diversion program is illegal under Minnesota law, putting into question similar programs in Goodhue County, Red Wing and more than 30 other cities and counties across the state.

The partial summary judgment by Third District Court Judge James Fabian includes a permanent injunction on Wabasha County’s Safe Driving Class, which gave motorists the option of taking an educational course in lieu of paying certain traffic tickets.

Goodhue County has run its Driver Awareness Class based on the Wabasha County program since around 2008. Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin announced Tuesday that he will suspend the county’s program. He said he intended to announce it to patrol deputies that evening.

He made the decision after conferring with County Attorney Steve Betcher, who advised discontinuing the program until the Legislature clarifies the law.

The Wabasha County program was touted as a way for motorists to avoid having a citation entered on their driving record, while also educating them to be better drivers. But legal challenges arose over the class’s $125 registration fee, the proceeds of which stayed entirely in the county.

Opponents argued the program denied money to the state, which collects a portion of traffic fines.

A lawsuit was filed last summer by Wabasha County Commissioners David Harms and Debra Roschen, former Commissioner Merl Norman, driving class attendee Lynn Cliff and watchdog group the Association for Government Accountability. The lawsuit was the latest move in the years-long debate of the program since its inception in 2003.

“As elected commissioners, we could continue to knowingly break the law, or we could have this matter resolved in the court,” Harms said in a statement.

Wabasha County contended the program was allowed under a state statute authorizing the creation of pretrial diversion programs at the local level. Although the law only permits such programs for felonies, gross misdemeanors and misdemeanors, the county argued the purpose of the law implied that some traffic citations — considered petty misdemeanors — should be included, according to court documents.

The court disagreed, and instead ruled that the program infringed on the state’s authority to manage traffic offenses.

Wabasha County’s program has generated more than $400,000 in revenue since 2003, according to the Association for Government Accountability.

The money was used to pay for training and equipment for the Wabasha County Sheriff’s Department, court documents state.

The Red Wing Police Department has offered a similar driving class since 2010, but has remitted yearly surcharges to the state since 2011, according to a State Auditor’s report.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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