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Careless driving penalty increase gets approval of House committee

Cathy Ciaciura talks about her son, Lance, who was killed by an inattentive driver, as she testifies on HF1085, sponsored by Rep. Pat Garofalo, left, to enhance penalties for careless driving resulting in death or great bodily harm. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Vehicle crashes are not accidents because something occurs that leads to the collision. Oftentimes that is inattentive driving on the part of one party.

Sponsored by Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), HF1085 would increase the penalty for careless driving if it results in the death of another person to a gross misdemeanor. The maximum penalty for a gross misdemeanor is one year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Approved Wednesday by the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, the bill is headed to the House Floor. A companion, SF986, sponsored by Sen. Jim Carlson (DFL-Eagan), awaits action by the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee.

House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee

Current law provides that when a person is found to be carelessly driving and causes the death of another person, they can be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony. Gross negligence must be shown to get a felony charge.

“We have had many examples across the state of Minnesota where the careless actions of a driver have resulted in the death of another individual, and those actions have been charged simply as a misdemeanor, which is akin to running over a street sign,” Garofalo said.

Rep. Jack Considine Jr. (DFL-Mankato) lost his brother last year to an incident where an inattentive driver was involved. “This hole needs to be plugged up,” he said.

Sharing her story with the committee was Cathy Ciaciura, whose son, Lance, was killed instantly in May 2003 when an inattentive driver made a left turn in front of Lance on his motorcycle. He left behind a wife who was nine months pregnant.

The driver was charged with four misdemeanors, including careless driving, and one petty misdemeanor. He did not spend any time in jail for the crash; however, he later served a week in the county workhouse for violating terms of his probation.

“According to the public record, this driver has been convicted of seven additional driving offenses since then, yet he continues to live his life and he continues to receive misdemeanors,” Ciaciura said. “We live our lives without our precious son, husband, daddy, grandson. It’s just not right.”

The bill would also repeal the misdemeanor crime of reckless driving. Its provisions would fall under careless driving.

“It does require a burden of proof that’s very similar to proof of gross negligence,” said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom. “From a prosecutorial perspective, if we can prove reckless driving we’re basically going to be able to prove gross negligent driving, and that’s a felony.”

Rep. Jeff Howe (R-Rockville) and Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge) aren’t sure the reckless driving repeal is a good idea.

“Reckless is more serious offense than careless because it’s willfully doing and wanting to do it,” Johnson said. “In all the years of my [law enforcement] career, I’ve never had anybody fight a reckless driving ticket in court, and I can’t count the number times I’ve had a careless ticket that I had to go for to testify. Myself, I would love to see the same provisions in the reckless driving as in the careless because there is a difference.”

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