Close the glaring loophole in hit-and-run cases

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2014 - 6:06 PM

Legislation would remove the ignorance defense for drivers.

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It’s dark outside and you’re eager to get through your commute after a tough day at work. As you accelerate, you hear and feel a thud somewhere on the passenger side of your vehicle. You cringe and get that sinking feeling that comes with the realization that you hit something.

You may not know what you hit, but common sense tells you to get out and take a look — both to see if anything or anyone is hurt and to check your car for damage.

That’s the responsible decision, anyway. Yet some motorists just hit the gas and keep driving. And some of them — after learning they hit, injured or even killed someone — offer up “I didn’t know I hit a person” as an excuse.

Under a sensible legislative proposal, that defense wouldn’t wash any longer in Minnesota.

A bill introduced last week by state Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, would eliminate the need for prosecutors to prove that an accused motorist knew the collision was with a person. The law would call for a driver to stop and investigate, thus making it harder to plead ignorance in hit-and-run cases.

Dahle, a teacher and a veteran driver’s education instructor, says the proposed legislation would “close a loophole’’ that gives drivers an incentive to leave the scene, especially if they know they can claim ignorance to avoid prosecution.

As at least a couple of high-profile Minnesota cases have demonstrated, drivers have tried to escape liability by taking advantage of the “ignorance” loophole.

A 2010 state Supreme Court decision overturned the criminal vehicular homicide convictions of Mohammed Al-Naseer in the death of Kane Thompson. The court found that prosecutors did not prove that Al-Naseer knew he had hit someone when he fled the scene of the collision.

Then in 2012, attorneys for Amy Senser tried to use the Al-Naseer case to defend her. Senser struck and killed Anousone Phanthavong while driving along an Interstate 94 exit ramp. She failed to stop and later said she thought she had hit a construction cone. Senser was convicted and sent to prison. Her release is expected next month.

Dahle’s bill would make it the driver’s responsibility to stop at or as close as safely possible to the point of impact. If the collision is with a person or another vehicle, existing laws would cover the requirements to remain at the scene and report what happened.

During a Senate hearing last week, legislators raised a number of questions about the bill, including whether drivers would be required to stop if they hit a deer or another animal.

Kelly Moeller, interim executive director of the Minnesota Alliance on Crime, who was an appellate prosecutor who handled appeals in the Al-Naseer case, said drivers would only be criminally liable if they hit a person or a car and failed to stop.

“If you look down, hit a deer and keep driving, and it ends up being a deer, there’s no liability,” Moeller said.

Some legislators pointed to potential gaps in Dahle’s bill, including crashes caused by erratic driving.

“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.

Dahle’s bill only applies to crashes involving impact, but Moeller said gross negligence could apply if a driver knew there had been an accident and failed to stop and render aid.

Following the hearing, Dahle acknowledged to a Star Tribune reporter that there may still be unanswered questions about the bill. No doubt those questions can be addressed. Once they are, the legislation should be adopted.

  • Take responsibility

    “This proposal [requiring motorists to stop and investigate a collision] doesn’t change anything in current law on the penalties — it just clarifies where the responsibility for the knowledge lies. … The driver needs to know whether the car hit a chipmunk or a child.’’

    NANCY JOHNSON, legislative liaison, Minnesotans for Safe Driving

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