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BISMARCK, N.D. -- North Dakota has a reputation for being one of the worst states for alcohol problems like drunken driving and underage drinking. Law enforcement agencies have tried some proactive approaches to try to curb the problems.
Law enforcement officials in North Dakota use several programs, including mandating alcohol breath tests to ensure certain defendants aren't using alcohol, enlisting people younger than 21 to test alcohol establishments, and putting extra officers on the roads to watch for drunken drivers.
The Bismarck Police Department uses federal grant money siphoned through the North Dakota Highway Patrol to local agencies to run two programs designed to help keep alcohol out of the hands of people younger than 21.
Lt. Mike Arnold said this year the Bismarck Police Department received $8,500, down from $10,000 the year before, to run the alcohol compliance programs.
In one of the programs, police officers accompany mature-looking 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds and young-looking 20-year-olds to establishments that serve alcohol. The minors go in and try to order drinks while the officers wait outside. If employees in the establishment serve a minor, an officer goes in later and deals with the repercussions.
"They're told not to drink it, naturally," Arnold said.
In the other program, plainclothes officers sit in unmarked cars outside liquor stores and watch for suspicious activity, such as someone buying copious amounts of alcohol and splitting it into different cars.
After the officers do the compliance checks, the department puts the results out to the media. Arnold said he thinks the operations make people think before selling to minors or buying them alcohol.
"I think it does make a difference," he said. "I wish we had more officers and time to do it on a more regular basis."
* Patrol puts more officers on the roads.
One of the main goals of the North Dakota Highway Patrol is stopping drivers from getting behind the wheel while impaired, Sgt. Tom Iverson said. To that end, the state agency has several programs used regularly to make people think before driving drunk.
In saturation patrols, an increased number of troopers, including some working overtime and some who come from other parts of the state, "saturate" an area. Iverson said the increase serves two purposes: More troopers means more chances of catching impaired drivers, and an increased law enforcement presence should serve to keep people from getting behind the wheel.
"Word kind of spreads when they notice an increased amount of law enforcement in the area," he said.
Checkpoints often are used in combination with saturation patrols, Iverson said. A checkpoint features five to 20 officers from the patrol and local agencies. Every car through a given road is stopped briefly to see if drivers have been drinking.
"It's not an inconvenience for drivers, unless they have been drinking," he said.
The patrol releases to the media information about checkpoints ahead of time to deter people from driving drunk.
More recently, the patrol has launched a "high visibility enforcement campaign" in an effort to reduce the number of serious and fatal crashes through the end of the year. The number of fatalities on North Dakota roads already has exceeded last year's total.
The campaign includes more opportunities for troopers to work overtime to look for impaired drivers and other problems, along with numerous public service announcements about making smart driving decisions. Additionally, every available trooper, from the top down, was out patrolling on the day before Thanksgiving, typically referred to as the busiest travel day of the year.
* Departments monitor alcohol use by offenders.
The North Dakota attorney general's office began the 24/7 Sobriety Program with a pilot program in the South Central Judicial District in January 2008. The program mandates twice-daily breath tests at sheriffs' departments for alcohol for people facing a second or subsequent driving under the influence charge. The program was expanded statewide in 2010, and judges now can order people facing a variety of charges in alcohol-related incidents to participate.
The attorney general's office said 98 percent of people who participate in the program successfully complete it, meaning they show up for all of their tests and do not use alcohol.
Melissa Rahn, a Bismarck woman facing a second DUI, said she has had no problems in the 24/7 program because she swore off alcohol after an October crash. However, she said, she has seen at least six people arrested for violating the program, and she believes it appears to be a good deterrent for some people to stay off alcohol.