FARGO, N.D. — State higher education officials say they are reviewing policies on the authority of college police departments after questions about North Dakota State University officers making arrests off campus and boosting Fargo's general fund with fines.
Defense attorneys have raised the issue in recent court cases involving the NDSU police force, which has an agreement with the city that allows its 17 officers to enforce laws "in the perimeter around campus." NDSU has two buildings in downtown Fargo and its main campus is on the city's north side.
Police chiefs from NDSU and the city say the pact goes back 20 years and the arrangement works well. NDSU officers also assist Fargo police with major crimes on a temporary basis.
Fargo attorney Charlie Sheeley, who is representing a client arrested for drunken driving several blocks from the downtown campus, says the deal conflicts with state law and is akin to North Dakota taxpayers unknowingly funding the city.
State Sen. Kelly Armstrong, a lawyer in Dickinson, agrees with Sheeley.
"If I am paying for an NDSU police officer, as a state taxpayer I don't feel like stuffing Fargo's coffers. I just don't," Armstrong said. "If there's not enough enforcement work to do directly with NDSU, maybe we should look at making the police force smaller. I can think of a better way to spend that money."
Murray Sagsveen, the university system's chief of staff, told The Associated Press that lawyers within the system believe the state Board of Higher Education can delegate law enforcement authority to the campuses and that the college presidents have the power to fashion agreements with city police.
"Having said that, this is a very interesting issue and we're talking about it and exploring it," Sagsveen said. "We want to make sure that there are valid agreements so that there can be good law enforcement on campuses. I think at a minimum the board should be informed and briefed about it."
The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks and North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton are the only other schools in the state with their own police forces.
The issue was debated in state court recently when Sheeley filed a motion to suppress evidence against his client in the DUI case because he believes the NDSU officer acted outside his authority. Sheeley argued that the so-called memorandum of understanding between NDSU and Fargo is invalid and neither the Board of Higher Education nor the Legislature has signed off on it.
When asked by East Central District Judge Thomas Olson whether the board had "spoken to this issue," Sheeley said university system officials responding to an open records request could not find any board action either approving or denying the deal between NDSU and Fargo.
"I didn't think that was unusual because it's kind of a local decision," Sagsveen said.
Jason Loos, an attorney representing the city, said during the hearing that state law doesn't address much about the role of campus police forces and there's nothing that shows NDSU needs permission from the board.
"I can tell you the city is not making any money of this," Loos said in court. "It's a mutually beneficial arrangement."
NDSU officials say citations written by campus police for state violations are heard in district court and any fine goes to the state. If NDSU officers write a citation for a violation of city ordinance, the issue goes to municipal court and any fine goes to the city. NDSU police issued 765 traffic citations in 2013 and 100 between January and March of this year, according to figures provided by the school.
NDSU police statistics do not differentiate between on- and off-campus arrests. The officer who testified in Sheeley's case said 13 of his 15 DUI arrests were made off campus.
Sagsveen said the issue of fines could be a "red herring" by defense attorneys whose clients are accused of driving drunk.
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"It's possible that the city is getting an incidental benefit from that, but the primary issue is the security and the safety of the students," he said.
Olson, the judge, told the lawyers he was "confounded" by issues in the case and hoped to release his ruling before a dispositional conference scheduled on May 21.
Fargo attorney Mark Friese, who led a successful class-action suit against the city in 2007 over traffic fines that exceeded state limits, said he's offended by the agreement between NDSU and Fargo.
"I think it's patently silly," he said. "Fargo gains nothing from giving these guys jurisdiction, other than money."