Minnesota drivers involved in collisions would be required by law to stop and investigate what they struck, cutting off an “ignorance” defense commonly used in hit-and-run cases.
The proposal comes in the wake of a 2010 state Supreme Court ruling that reversed the criminal vehicular homicide convictions of Mohammed Al-Naseer in the hit-and-run death of Kane Thomson after prosecutors failed to prove that Al-Naseer knew he struck a person or vehicle when he left the scene, as required by current law.
Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, says his bill “closes a loophole that encourages drivers to flee the scene and escape liability by claiming they did not know what they struck.” Under Dahle’s bill, drivers would have to “reasonably investigate what was struck” in any circumstance. The bill, heard in a Senate committee Monday, has broad support from Minnesota sheriffs, county attorneys and the Minnesota Bicycle Alliance.
It was the Al-Naseer reversal that was used by the defense team for Amy Senser in a high-profile trial that ended in Senser’s conviction and prison sentence. Senser, the wife of former Minnesota Vikings player Joe Senser, struck and killed Anousone Phanthavong on a darkened I-94 freeway ramp in August 2011. Throughout the trial, Amy Senser maintained that she left the scene believing she had struck a construction cone or barrel. She is scheduled for release next month.
Al-Naseer was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to four years in prison for leaving the scene of an accident in the June 2002 death of Kane Thomson, 26, of Minnetonka. Thomson was changing a tire on Hwy. 10 in Clay County when Al-Naseer struck and killed him without stopping. The crash disabled Al-Naseer’s headlights and left his right front tire flat. Six miles from the scene, a Dilworth police officer stopped Al-Naseer, who told the officer he had hit something, but didn’t know what it was.
After a lengthy appeals process, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that under existing law, the state was obliged to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Al-Naseer knew he had been in an accident with a person or a vehicle, which would have required him to stop. The state couldn’t do that, the court reasoned, and threw out the conviction.
‘Fix the statute’
Thomson’s sister, Kris Zell, of St. Louis Park, told the legislative panel on Monday that each time she hears about a hit-and-run case, she is “appalled to think that I will probably again be hearing of how the driver is going to use this Supreme Court reversal to benefit themselves,” particularly in cases of drunken drivers who flee instead of stopping to help, only to later plead ignorance if they are caught.
“It is incomprehensible to me that we allow this to continue,” Zell said. “The time has come for this statute to be fixed.”
Some lawmakers questioned potential loopholes in Dahle’s bill, such as crashes caused by no impact at all.
“Say you’re going down a two-lane highway and fiddling with the radio, texting, whatever, and you swerve into somebody’s lane, go back into yours and the car you just miss goes into the ditch and somebody’s killed. Do you have responsibility to stop under this?” asked Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope.
Advocates said the bill applies only to crashes where impact occurs, but that gross negligence could apply if a driver knew there had been a collision and failed to stop and render aid, said Kelly Moeller, interim executive director of the Minnesota Alliance on Crime, who was an appellate prosecutor who handled appeals in the Al-Naseer case.
Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, asked about cases where drivers may strike a deer, raccoon or squirrel.
“You’re only going to be criminally liable if it turns out you hit a person or a car,” Moeller said. “If you look down, hit a deer and keep driving and it ends up being a deer, there’s no liability. But if it ends up being a person you will be criminally responsible for that.”
Dahle said afterward that even as some unanswered questions remain, the legislation could give defense attorneys one less tool in hit-and-run cases. The bill was passed unanimously and heads next to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The House is scheduled to hear a companion bill on Tuesday.