Candidates for Morton County state’s attorney are the eight-term incumbent and an experienced prosecutor, both of whom handled criminal cases from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Morton County State’s Attorney Allen Koppy is seeking a ninth term against Assistant State’s Attorney Gabrielle Goter. Both say they’re running on their visions to strengthen the office, while offering some of their first public comments on the DAPL cases, which have wound down to about 100 cases left from 831 charged, most of them now warrants.
It’s difficult to say how the DAPL cases may affect voters. Defense attorneys involved have stressed the individual conduct of defendants who were often arrested en masse.
Mandan attorney Amanda Harris said she’s not sure if Koppy and Goter differ all that much in their perspectives, and added she’s not sure if the DAPL criminal cases will weigh on voters’ minds.
According to the Water Protector Legal Collective, 22 of the 58 defendants who went to trial were convicted, as of Sept. 19. Many other cases ended with deferred impositions, dismissals and diversions. Through a spokeswoman, the collective declined to comment on the race.
Bismarck attorney Chris Redmann, who lives in Morton County, said the protests’ prosecution won’t affect his vote.
“I don’t think the dismissals are a byproduct of malignancies in the process. They’re just technically difficult cases to prosecute,” Redmann said. “I don’t think any lawyer over there did a poor job or is deficient in their skills.”
Koppy declined to elaborate on the protests’ prosecution, citing attorney rules limiting comments on pending cases, but said his office “just did the best we could with the circumstances that were presented.”
“It made an already busy time even more so,” he said. “I like to describe the criminal justice system that the cases come into the system though a fire hose, and they leave through a garden hose, and so when we started to do the DAPL cases, then it was like drinking from a fire hose.”
Goter said she wouldn’t have done anything differently, that arrests "were valid" and charges "were appropriate." The protests that ended in February 2017 do remain “a fresh wound” for Morton County residents, she added.
“It affected how they did business. It affected how they lived. Schools were closed. Roads were closed,” Goter said. “It affected their daily lives.”
Koppy is seeking re-election to a ninth term. He is perhaps the longest-serving current state’s attorney in North Dakota, in office since 1987. In 1990 and 1994, he ran against Goter’s father, Wayne Goter, who was his last challenger.
This time around, Koppy said he’s running for the office, not against Gabrielle Goter, but hoping to serve once more and build on a “team” approach among the attorneys in his office. His office has five full-time prosecutors, including him and Goter.
Population growth has been a challenge, Koppy said: “In any population, you’re going to have the very law-abiding, as well as those who aren’t.”
Everyone takes a share of the workload, from which Koppy said he handles mental health committals, traffic and game and fish violations. He also handles administrative matters and counsel to county commissioners and departments. Goter and Morton County Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Grosinger also help on the latter.
“With the team approach, we’re just continuing to do our jobs, working well with each other, picking up for each other, helping each other,” Koppy said. “And not just the prosecutorial team, but also the office assistants as well. Everyone does a bang-up job over there.”
Koppy first ran in 1986, and said he’d like to continue to serve as state’s attorney for Mandan and greater Morton County: “It’s been an honor and a privilege.”
Goter has been with Koppy’s office for nearly nine years. She noted how her experience in juvenile court and seeing addiction in criminal cases has informed her views and involvement, such as with the Dakota Children’s Advocacy Center.
“That’s the part the public never gets to see, that juvenile court piece, but it’s very eye-opening,” Goter said. “I think it’s one of the most challenging parts of the job, to work in juvenile court for a prolonged period of time just because you’re dealing with people on the most personal level, the family level."
Morton County has changed since the Bakken oil boom, Goter said. Drug cases have increased, such as methamphetamine; with that come crimes that likely wouldn’t have occurred if substances weren’t involved, according to Goter, such as juvenile deprivation from addicted parents and DUI deaths or injuries.
Illegal drugs also pose dangers for police and medical personnel who may be exposed to substances that could be lethal in microscopic amounts, Goter added.
"What we're seeing now is not what we've always been seeing, and things need to change," she said. "The communities have changed, and in good ways and bad ways, but the way we go about business can't be the same if you're going to address those changes ..."
In running against her boss, Goter said she's grateful for his support on the job, and even talked to him before her campaign.
“I think I can do this job, and I think I can do this job well, and I think that I can move the office in a direction that it needs to go at this time,” she said.