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93-year-old driver gets warning from judge; ND woman avoids jail time

Faith Mitzel of Oberon talks about the fatal accident she was involved in on May 19 along a stretch of Highway 57 near Fort Totten. She says witnesses can testify that she was not at fault. Sarah Kolberg/ Forum Communications

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - Faith Mitzel was not sentenced to jail time Tuesday, but Judge Donovan Foughty warned the 93-year-old known for her role in a fatal crash that if she gets behind the wheel without passing a driver's test, she could face up to 60 days behind bars.

"I don't want to give you 60 days in jail," Foughty said. "I just don't want you driving."

During a hearing at the Ramsey County Courthouse, Mitzel pleaded guilty to a pair of misdemeanor driving charges. In addition to the suspended sentence, Foughty ordered her to pay $375 in fines.

State's Attorney Lonnie Olson lobbied for Mitzel to receive the maximum sentence of 60 days in jail. "She has a proven history as a dangerous driver," Olson said. "On May 19 of this year she crossed the centerline in daylight during good weather and plowed into two motorcycles, killing a pregnant woman, severely injuring her husband and the driver ... of the other motorcycle."

After an investigation into that crash, which happened in Benson County, one of the motorcyclists was cited for not having a license to drive a motorcycle. Meanwhile, Mitzel, who lives in Oberon, was cited for driving on the wrong side of the road, and her license was suspended because of questions about her ability to drive.

On Aug. 3, a Ramsey County deputy stopped her east of Devils Lake for changing lanes without signaling and cited her for driving with a suspended license and driving without insurance. She pleaded guilty to those charges Tuesday.

"She has no intent to stop driving," Olson said. "She bought a Cadillac from the Bisbee area on July 19 of 2010, and she does have a number of vehicles registered to her name. It is the position of the state that the public must be protected and must be protected from unsafe drivers."

Mitzel's pro-bono attorney, Monty Stensland of Grand Forks, emphasized that Tuesday's hearing was addressing the misdemeanor charges from Aug. 3 - not the May 19 crash.

Stensland, who has known Mitzel since he was young, said his client had a clean driving record until the deadly crash. He said she has not been driving lately and has been receiving rides from friends and family.

"Sure, she would like to try to work through the driver's license suspension process and become licensed again. I don't know that that's a realistic possibility," he said.

When given the chance to speak, Mitzel said she does not have a vehicle to drive. "I haven't had anything to drive anyway except the lawnmower," she said.

Foughty acknowledged the tragic May 19 crash but noted that "there has never been a judicial determination as to fault on this accident."

"I think for me to assume fault on her part at this point would be inappropriate," he said.

The two motorcyclists who survived the crash are suing Mitzel for more than $200,000 in damages, alleging that her negligence caused the collision. An attorney representing Mitzel has blamed the crash on the motorcyclists and is seeking a dismissal of their suit.

Parties in that case are set to meet Dec. 14.