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Minnesota Legislature

Penalty for deadly careless driving

Published (2/20/2009)
By Mike Cook
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Doing a burnout while spinning one’s wheels or killing someone while driving can get a person the same penalty.

Rep. Karla Bigham (DFL-Cottage Grove) and Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) find that unfair.

Sponsored by Bigham, HF45 would increase the penalty for careless driving that results in the death of another person to a gross misdemeanor, which could mean a year in jail.

Approved Feb. 12 by the House Public Safety Policy and Oversight Committee on a split voice vote, the bill was sent to the House Finance Committee.

“Right now there is a misdemeanor penalty or a felony penalty that exists in the case of when a person is found to be carelessly driving and causes the death of another person, “ said Garofalo, who sponsors a similar bill, HF134, but agreed to support Bigham’s bill. “This would create a way in the middle where prosecutors would have the option, not a requirement, to charge at a gross misdemeanor level only in those cases in which a death results.”

Scott Hersey, head of the Criminal Division for the Dakota County Attorney’s Office, said a prosecutor needs to show probable cause to get a felony conviction.

Among the testifiers was Maureen Johnson, whose brother, John, was killed by someone who ran a red light. Charged with failure to obey a traffic signal semaphore, the driver was ultimately sentenced to 50 hours of community service and had a to write an apology to the family. “While we were picking out a casket, this driver was driving,” she said, fighting back tears. “It made no difference that this person killed somebody’s son, brother, uncle and friend. He just ran a red light. No big deal.”

The bill would also provide for a person’s license to be revoked for one year, and would prohibit a limited license from being issued before 180 days have elapsed from the date of revocation. Sentencing judges would be prohibited from staying the license revocation.

“We oppose these bills because it dramatically lowers the standard prosecutors need to meet to prove a serious criminal charge, and it opens the door to punitive damages,” said Doug Grawe, legal counsel for Dart Transit Company.

A companion bill, SF639, sponsored by Sen. Jim Carlson (DFL-Eagan), awaits action by the Senate Transportation Committee.

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