Car crashes that cause deaths cry out for justice, putting police and prosecutors in the position of assigning blame and proving guilt. Such is the case now in the Minneapolis hit-and-run death of Anousone Phanthavong by a car driven by Amy Senser, the wife of former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser.
The Legislature has heeded the emotional message of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups over the years and toughened penalties where alcohol is involved. But politicians have been less willing to do the same for roadway tragedies with less-clear causes. This past session was another in which Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, failed in his five-year campaign to create a tougher penalty for fatal crashes caused by a driver who is careless but not necessarily drunk.
"It seems like a simple, common-sense law,'' Garofalo said. "Some people are very opposed to increasing penalties for crimes that lack intent. It makes no sense to me.''
Faced with a traffic death caused by a sober driver, prosecutors now must either prove "gross negligence" to charge a serious felony or fall back to a misdemeanor charge of careless driving. Garofolo's bill would create a new gross misdemeanor crime for these in-between cases, providing more jail and probation time than the lesser charge.
There are too many unknowns to determine whether this would have applied in the unfolding Senser case. It is not known whether Amy Senser, who left the scene of the accident, was driving while impaired.
But the lack of a middle-ground charge has become an issue in several metro-area tragedies with multiple victims and no evidence of alcohol use. Drivers walking away with a brief sentence and a traffic-ticket-size fine have angered victims and their advocates.
Motorcyclists, for whom a driver's minor infraction can be fatal, testified in support of Garofalo's bill. Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom, who was forced to charge the driver who caused a 2009 triple-fatal with misdemeanor careless driving, has argued for the change.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, ranking minority member on the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said he believes some legislators are conflicted about whether to ramp up the penalty in cases where the crash may be more accidental than criminal.
"There's a balance between an accident, in the generic sense, that's not anyone's fault, versus criminal conduct,'' he said.
"I'll keep fighting for it,'' said Garofalo, and he has the support of such groups as Minnesotans for Safe Driving, which seeks to extend the law to accidents that cause serious injuries as well as deaths.
But they will face a version of the same problem police and prosecutors confront as they begin picking up the pieces at the accident scene -- proving to legislators that there is often someone to blame and punish.
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