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ABC 6 News Investigates: Monitoring the System

September 26, 2017 11:35 PM

(ABC 6 NEWS) – Being charged with a DWI is expensive. There are court fees and your insurance rates can go through the roof, to name a few of the costs.

If the Judge orders it, you may also have to pay for an alcohol monitor.

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ABC 6 News discovered that when it comes to Olmsted County’s alcohol monitor program, the process wasn’t in line with Minnesota law.

Recently, Olmsted County District Judge Joseph Chase denied the county’s motion arguing that all defendants be hooked up to their contracted monitoring company.

At this point of the story, you may be reading this thinking why someone would care about someone accused of a crime like a DWI. Our ABC 6 News investigation wasn't intended to give sympathy towards those who get behind the wheel drunk, rather, to have viewers think about how they would feel if you were overcharged for something when it turns out you could have been saving a lot more money in the long run.

"I was taken advantage of because I had no other options," said a DWI defendant.

A woman charged with her second DWI in Olmsted County asked us to protect her identity. She came forward the day after being arrested and charged with her second DWI. She had three options: stay in jail, post bond, or as part of a condition of release, she needed to be hooked up to an electronic alcohol monitor. She says she didn't have the bond money so she chose what she thought was the cheaper option - the monitor.

"I asked them if I would get some help and that wasn't an option for me. They said if I didn't pay the $238 then I wasn't getting out," she added.

Olmsted County’s alcohol monitoring system is run by Midwest Monitoring and Surveillance out of Burnsville, MN.

In Olmsted County, a defendant could pay $17 to $24 a day, which includes a $5 per day fee that goes back to the county.

"I have a client who is on pretrial release in several different counties, and to require her to be on three separate [monitors] through three separate providers with three separate fees is ridiculous,” said defense attorney Danielle DiFiore.

Recently, DiFiore decided to challenge there sheriff’s office and go with a different monitoring service, and she wasn’t alone.

"We represent people who are often desperately poor,” said public defender Brian Hagen.

ABC 6 News spoke to six defense attorneys who asked the court if their clients have to obey the sheriff’s office mandate to use Midwest monitoring. It’s a process that has been in place for 15 years.

"It was a client who made the switch to an alternative provider and the county was upset. Then when that conflict came to us we asked, 'what's the issue with using a different provider?'” questioned attorney Michael Walters.

Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson defended the Midwest Monitoring program saying in part, "When the process is circumvented the following occurs: loss of control; no built-in 'fee' (paid to the county) to cover the cost of staffing; and a lack of accountability."

"Midwest's least expensive option because it has no location tracking really defeats the sheriff's stated goal if there's a violation that they want to go out and find them, but they can't because they don't know where they are,” added Hagen.

On average, defendants charged with their second DWI end up bailing out for a total of $1,200.

According to the defense attorneys, on average a speedy trial takes around 88 days. If you do the math using Midwest Monitoring's cheapest $17 a day option, by day 71, a defendant will have paid more money for the monitor than if they had paid the average unconditional bond.

ABC 6 News reached out to the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office and they declined an on-camera interview. We also went as far as to reach out to former sheriffs who also declined comment.

“If the real concern is public safety, what’s going to ensure public safety is going to have a more affordable cost-effective monitoring program rather than having a program so costly that it makes more sense posting an unconditional bail than to be on the monitor,” said public defender Catherine Hanson.

Court documents show the sheriff’s office has collected more than $740,000 dollars from Midwest Monitoring over the last 10 years.

County officials say the money is, “used to offset expenses of the intensive, daily, cooperative management of the monitoring program by staff of the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office.”

"That's essentially a tax. It's a tax that's nowhere in the law asking our clients to pay for it,” added Walters.

In Danielle DiFiore’s case, Olmsted County District Judge Joseph Chase ruled, “there is no statutory authority for the idea that the sheriff alone can or must provide that program.”

In his ruling, Judge Chase cited Minnesota Statute 169A. 73 subd. 2 which states:

“In cooperation with the conference of chief judges, the state court administrator, and the commissioner of public safety, the commissioner of corrections shall establish a program to use breath analyzer units to monitor impaired driving offenders who are ordered to abstain from alcohol use as a condition of pretrial release, supervised release, or probation. The program must include procedures to ensure that violators of this condition of release receive swift consequences for the violation.”

In response to the law, Judge Chase wrote, “The statue says nothing about Minnesota sheriffs being responsible for providing the ‘program of alcohol monitoring’ the court must order. This statute also places no electronic alcohol monitoring program responsibility on Minnesota’s sheriffs.”

"That would be huge if they gave you more options instead of just kind of throwing you out there,” said the DWI defendant.

When ABC 6 News spoke to the DWI defendant, it was after the courts ruled against Olmsted County. However, she says she was told the same old story.

"It was just like, ‘well, sorry, this is what you have to do to get out, and you're not getting any help,’” she said.

“Is that fair?” asked ABC 6 news anchor Karsen Forsman.

“No,” she replied. When asked why, she responded, "Because I felt like I was lied to."

ABC 6 News checked with other departments in southeast Minnesota and none had contracts with a monitoring provider. Most give referral forms to DWI defendants who need an alcohol monitor.

Mower, Fillmore and Dodge County do use Midwest Monitoring and Surveillance, but say it's ultimately up to the defendant to choose a provider. 

We also talked to the president of Midwest Monitoring and Surveillance who wanted to make it clear that the $5 per day feeis set by Olmsted County, not their company


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