November 08, 2017 10:23 PM
A McLeod County man whose wife was killed by a distracted driver says the state's "antiquated laws" must change to make cell phone distractions carry the same weight as alcohol or drugs when it comes to deadly crashes.
"It was a misdemeanor to kill my wife and that doesn't sit well with my family," Ryan Verdeck said in a recent interview.
Verdeck's wife Penny was struck and killed while riding her bike along County Road 3 in Glencoe in April of 2015.
The driver, Emily Givens, was charged with criminal vehicular homicide - a felony. But she was convicted of careless driving - a misdemeanor.
"The girl who struck and killed my wife received 30 days in jail," Verdeck said. "That's not a deterrent. That's not a deterrent to anybody."
Givens did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The exact number of distracted driving deaths related to cell phones in Minnesota is unknown because the Department of Public Safety only started tracking cell phone use as a distraction last year.
It has not yet compiled statistics.
But Givens' case, along with more recent distracted-driving deaths, highlight a gap in the state law, according to Michael Junge, the McLeod County Attorney.
In Minnesota, alcohol and drugs are considered aggravating factors in criminal vehicular homicide cases. Cell phone use is not. Therefore prosecutors must prove drivers like Givens, who caused deadly wrecks, acted with gross negligence - a much higher standard, and one more difficult to prove.
"My case is one of the longer sentences, even though it was 30 days, than most distracted driving deaths where a cell phone played a role in the tragedy," Junge said. "Because the higher standard of proving gross negligence to gain a felony conviction is much more difficult.
"The amount of harm is the same whether it's distraction by alcohol abuse, distraction by drug abuse, distraction by phone abuse," he added.
Junge believed evidence in Givens' case amounted to gross negligence since it showed Givens opened two text messages seconds before the wreck while driving more than 50 miles-per-hour.
District Judge Timothy Looby disagreed, writing in his ruling that Givens may have acted with "appalling," but not "gross negligence."
However, Looby called it an "obvious case of distracted driving" and suggested even he believes the law "should be different."
Verdeck, who is now raising two teenage daughters, hopes his wife's death will convince lawmakers to strengthen the law when they return to the capitol next year.
"It's not going to go away. Our phones are central to our lives," Verdeck said. "We're not going to put them down. We need to figure something out."
Joe Augustine and Jay Kolls
Updated: November 08, 2017 10:23 PM
Created: November 08, 2017 05:32 PM
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