At State Capitol, a Push to Increase Penalty for Deadly Car Crashes Tied to Cell Phones

February 12, 2018 05:08 PM

In November, a KSTP investigation found instances of deadly car crashes involving cell phone use for which drivers spent little or no time in jail or prison.

State Rep. Keith Franke, R-Cottage Grove, reacted to the story by introducing a bill at the Capitol to make motor vehicle crashes which cause great bodily harm or death, and in which a cell phone or electronic device was proved a contributing factor, a low-level felony similar to current DUI penalties in Minnesota.

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KSTP found the relatively light jail sentences were handed down by judges across Minnesota because cell phone use while driving – even when contributing to a bad accident – falls under the broad legal umbrella of distracted driving. 

To elevate a distracted driving case to a felony, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the cell phone, or electronic device, was the key factor crashes involving death or serious injury. 

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Franke said this broad definition of distracted driving, which includes things such as tuning your car radio or eating a meal while behind the wheel, ties the hands of prosecutors when they charge a case. It also limits the sentences judges can impose, to a certain degree, when the standard of felony gross negligence cannot be met.

"Because just about everybody now has a cell phone and brings it with them just about everywhere they go, we need to have the laws, and the penalties, adjusted to catch up with the technology and make it a true deterrent like DUI laws, rather than just a simple citation," Franke said. "That's what my bill does. It allows prosecutors to charge a low-level felony when a cell phone or electronic device is a contributing factor when a car accident causes great bodily harm or death. It no longer has to be the direct cause of the accident."

Ryan Verdeck's wife, Penny, was killed while biking on County Road 3 in McLeod County in April 2015. 

The 19-year-old driver of the car which struck Verdeck received a 30-day sentence and lengthy probation. Judge Timothy Looby, in his decision, said the driver's use of a cell phone just moments before the crash rose to the level of "appalling negligence," but that the evidence "could not get beyond a reasonable doubt to convict of felony gross negligence."

The woman was convicted of misdemeanor negligence, which Ryan Verdeck said did not amount to justice. He is now committed to strengthening laws, and penalties, for people whose cell phone use contributed to a crash causing death or seriously injury.

RELATED: Driver Sentenced for Fatal Careless Driving Crash that Killed Glencoe Bicyclist

"It won't bring my wife, Penny, back and it won't bring my daughter's mother home again, but I am hoping this newly proposed bill becomes law so the statute has some teeth in it, and people think twice before using their cell phone while driving," Verdeck said. "And maybe, just maybe, another family will not have to go through what my family went through and then watch the party responsible for the tragedy get a 30-day jail sentence for killing someone's loved one."

Rep. Franke said he intends to introduce the bill sometime prior to the start of the next legislative session, which begins February 20.



 

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Jay Kolls

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