Audit Says Driver Diversion Programs are Illegal

Updated: 01/20/2014 9:20 PM By: Stephen Tellier

More than 30 traffic diversion programs run by cities and counties across Minnesota are not authorized by state law, according to a new report from the state auditor that states the programs could jeopardize Minnesota's federal highway funding and public safety.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS has been covering this issue for months. It pits local sheriffs and police chiefs against state officials. And a new, 190-page report is the first comprehensive look at these programs in four years.

Traffic diversion programs are a growing trend in Minnesota. Drivers who are caught speeding or committing minor traffic offenses can take a class for a fee instead of paying a more expensive ticket. The number of programs has jumped more than 50 percent in three years -- the auditor's report found 34 currently operating in the state. Local cities and counties that run the programs pocketed more than $600,000 in program fees last year.

"They're not authorized under current state law," said State Auditor Rebecca Otto.

Others call them downright illegal.

Otto's special review highlights several issues, including the fact that drivers who go through diversion don't even have their violations reported to the state and recorded on driving records.

"We need to know these things. Someone needs to be able to track that to determine if someone's a dangerous driver," Otto said.

Otto also said some programs may allow those with commercial driver's licenses to participate, too, which goes against federal guidelines.

"We're jeopardizing our federal highway aid as a state. That's a huge issue for us," Otto said.

"I know the folks here are passionate about it," said Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsh.

Wabasha County has been sued over its program. But Bartsh said drivers love it.

"They tell us that this is the best thing that they could have went to, that I learned something," Bartsh said.

And for that reason, he said he'll keep the program going -- even if it doesn't bring in a dime.

"We're going to fight this for the citizens. We believe it's a good thing," Bartsh said.

"Some law enforcement folks would say to you, that are doing this, 'Boy, this is great.' Talk to the legislature and let them decide," Otto said.

That's what the Otto wants lawmakers to do -- look at the report and go from there.

In the meantime, a judge is expected to rule on the Wabasha County case in the next couple of months.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said she wants to hold a legislative hearing on the programs during the next session. But Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, the ranking Republican on that committee, wants the Attorney General Lori Swanson to shut the programs down.

Swanson has said she doesn't have the authority to do that, but a previous 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation found she does.

We reached out to her office again on Wednesday but have not yet heard back.