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Highway patrolman resigns amid controversy on traffic citation policy
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Highway patrolman resigns amid controversy on traffic citation policy

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Amid controversy on ticket quotas, Jeremie Meisel tendered his resignation April 13 to the North Dakota State Highway Patrol after nearly a decade wearing the badge.

Meisel worked traffic enforcement, and, for the past few years, also as a handler for a drug-detecting canine named Max. In December, Meisel made statewide news when he intercepted 4.5 pounds of heroin during a traffic stop. All that came to an end in April.

Though Meisel's stormy and public departure from law enforcement was prompted by a criminal investigation into whether he falsified public records, at the heart of the matter was a philosophical divide between Meisel and state highway patrol command staff over the idea that traffic tickets prevent fatal collisions.

Col. Michael Gerhart, superintendent of the North Dakota State Highway Patrol, is a believer. He used a 2013 "crash clock" showing that a person died in a crash every 2.5 days as an example of why he pushes patrolmen to write more tickets and give more warnings.

Gerhart, who took command in the summer of 2014,  said he expects his officers to give "an honest day's work for an honest day's pay."

Gerhart said, in Meisel's case, he simply wasn't putting in that work.

Meisel views it differently and said he was never much of a ticket writer.

"There are a lot of different ways we can be effective than just writing a ticket," Meisel said, such as giving warnings and providing a constant, visible presence on the state highways.

Meisel and his attorney, Chris Redmann, argue Gerhart needs to give officers the discretion they need to do their jobs well.

Officer discretion

While the highway patrol policy manual does grant troopers some discretion in traffic enforcement, the manual lays out which offenses should be ticketed and which should be a warning.

For example, a driver going between five and nine miles over the speed limit in a 55 mph zone should be warned, but a driver going 10 or more miles above the speed limit, or who has been warned several times, should be cited.

Highway patrol command staff said the policy manual does not cover every circumstance, and officers are expected to use their best judgment. But in many cases, the policy manual leaves no discretion. Driving without proof of liability insurance, for example, earns an automatic citation.

That was what led to Meisel's legal troubles.

Active or non-active?

The highway patrol's citation system is set up for active and non-active citations. 

The vast majority of citations are active. When a person is cited for speeding or expired registration, for example, that person is issued a ticket. The active citation is logged in the highway patrol's database and on the state court system's website.

Non-active citations show up only in the highway patrol's database. Troopers use non-active citations as a means of internal record keeping for cases in which they will be pursuing a formal criminal complaint. 

Capt. Aaron Hummel said, despite that, a non-active citation could show up during a trooper-initiated traffic stop or during a prospective employer or landlord's criminal background check.

Until 2013, troopers used non-active citations to track charges of driving without proof of liability insurance. If a person failed to provide proof of insurance in a set amount of time, the trooper would take the non-active citation and file a formal complaint. 

The North Dakota Legislature in 2013 placed the onus on drivers to provide proof of insurance. Now, troopers issue active citations and it is up to the driver to provide proof and avoid the fine.

There is no reason now, Hummel said, for a trooper to issue a non-active citation for driving without insurance.

And yet, Hummel alleged, Meisel did just that as many as 20 times.

The big deal

Between April of 2014 and February of 2015, Meisel on several occasions wrote non-active citations for driving without proof of liability insurance. Those citations always accompanied others.

In interviews with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and later with the Tribune, Meisel admitted to doing so, but said he was trying to cut drivers a break.

Rather than write a ticket, mandatory per highway patrol policy, Meisel continued writing non-active citations. Meisel and his attorney said that all non-active citations were real, and that Meisel intended to follow up on them, though Meisel conceded that the boost to his ticket numbers wouldn't hurt.

The issue came to light when a person contacted the troopers concerned about a license suspended over an unpaid citation written by Meisel. After receiving the report, Sgt. Shannon Henke, one of Meisel's supervisors, went through other citations written by Meisel and noticed several irregularities. Highway patrol command staff ordered an internal investigation and also contacted BCI. 

Highway patrol command staff — Gerhart, Hummel and Maj. Brandon Solberg — said the citations were phony, that, in many cases, Meisel didn't check for liability insurance.

"That's where it's a big deal for us," Hummel said.

Meisel denied that allegation, saying he checked insurance for "every single person I stopped."

He said he didn't think he was doing anything wrong and says his honesty, when confronted about it by BCI Agent Rob Fontenot, is proof of that. 

"I'm disappointed. I wish I had the opportunity (for highway patrol command staff) to come to me," Meisel said in a Thursday interview in his attorney's office. "That was one of the things that hurt."

In the criminal interview, Fontenot asked Meisel whether he had written bad tickets — Fontenot used a non-print-friendly term to describe them — and Meisel admitted to doing so, saying that is was to "help my stats out."

"That's all, it is all about stats. I wanted stats," Meisel said in the BCI interview, adding that he felt pressured to get higher numbers of citations. 

Get the number

"Citation numbers have always been a problem for me during my time on the road working for the North Dakota Highway Patrol," Meisel wrote in a letter delivered to the highway patrol by his attorney Redmann on April 1.

On multiple occasions, Meisel was placed on an action plan aimed at improving his performance in both traffic enforcement and with his administrative duties. Meisel's superiors allege Meisel's was making an unacceptably low number of drug arrests, particularly as a canine handler.

Data provided by the highway patrol show Meisel made two drug arrests in 2013. In a six-month period between September of 2013 and February of 2014, Meisel issued fewer citations than some troopers wrote in a single month. In a Tribune interview, Meisel said he was under personal stress at the time and also engaged in other official activity, including making drug arrests.

Meisel was also facing heat for failing to turn in both daily and canine reports and failing to get his patrol vehicle's oil changed every 5,000 miles as required by the Department of Transportation.

From March of 2014 to September of that same year, Meisel was on an improvement plan, which required that he write at least 42 citations a month or else face the possibility of progressive discipline.

Gerhart has, in multiple interviews, denied that the highway patrol uses quotas. However, he conceded that, in some cases, such as with Meisel, the goals could be perceived as quotas. Gerhart also said that regional commanders were free to set their own enforcement goals within their area. Gerhart said he has since taken a hard look at how his office words traffic enforcement action plans.

Whether goals or quotas, Redmann said they are "de facto quotas." He said Meisel had to make his number or face the consequences. An honest day's work for an honest day's pay, Gerhart called it.

In his interview with Fontenot and again with the Tribune, Meisel spoke of the pressure he and other officers faced in making citation numbers. 

When talking to Fontenot, Meisel said he was faced with a choice: "Get yelled at or get your number."

Legal action

After completing his investigation, Fontenot submitted his report to the Burleigh County State's Attorney Richard Riha, who declined to prosecute. 

In a Tribune interview, Riha said he declined because there was disagreement among the prosecutors in his office over whether Meisel broke the law.

"If you have a couple of prosecutors and we can't decide how it is, imagine trying to sell it to a jury," Riha said.

'The nice guy'

Though he tendered his resignation in April, Meisel's last day as on the job was Friday. He's turned in his badge, gun and patrol vehicle. He's collected Max, his drug-sniffing canine partner of five years. Meisel, who spent nine years in law enforcement and six years before that in the U.S. Air Force, said he's done with public sector work.

"I think it's kind of run its course," he said.

Meisel said he still hopes to find a job he can put his skills to work, perhaps in the transportation or energy sector. He said he's eager to put his turbulent time with the state highway patrol behind him.

Meisel's former highway patrol superiors — Gerhart, Solberg, Hummel, Henke, Capt. Eric Pederson and Capt. Norman Ruud among them — say they wish Meisel no ill will.

"For whatever reason, he made a very bad choice," Ruud said. "It's a tragedy, because we have a lot of money tied up in Mr. Meisel as a trooper."

While they felt the highway patrol had received "a black eye" over the circumstances of Meisel's departure, the commanders said the organization would survive.

"This profession and this department is bigger than any one person," Pederson said.

Meisel's former commanders all described him as a nice guy who just made a big mistake.

"In our line of work, you can't always be the nice guy," Henke said.

(Reach Andrew Sheeler at 701-250-8225 or andrew.sheeler@bismarcktribune.com.)

"There are a lot of different ways we can be effective than just writing a ticket."

-- Jeremie Meisel

Jeremie Meisel

"In our line of work, you can't always be the nice guy."

--  Sgt. Shannon Henke, North Dakota State Highway Patrol

Sgt. Shannon Henke,

"For whatever reason, he made a very bad choice. It's a tragedy, because we have a lot of money tied up in Mr. Meisel as a trooper."

--  Capt. Norman Ruud, North Dakota State Highway Patrol

Capt. Norman Ruud

"This profession and this department is bigger than any one person."

--  Capt. Eric Pederson, North Dakota State Highway Patrol

Capt. Eric Pederson
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