The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 28, 2014

Hit-and-run bill passes key panel

'I didn't know what I hit' wouldn't be a defense

By Dan Linehan
The Mankato Free Press

---- — ST. PAUL — Leaving the scene of an accident with a vehicle or person without stopping will be a crime under a bill sponsored by state Sen. Kevin Dahle of Northfield.

Dahle, whose district includes most of Le Sueur County, believes the bill closes a loophole in the law that allows drivers to flee the scene of an injury accident and claim later they didn’t know they hit anything.

The bill faltered after a 4-4 vote in a March 11 judiciary committee hearing, but it was changed and passed through the same panel on Thursday evening.

The highest-profile hit-and-run case in recent years involved Amy Senser, who was convicted of striking and killing a man with her car on an I-94 off-ramp in 2011.

At least one legislator argued that her guilty verdict shows the current law works, but other cases have ended differently.

In 2010, the state Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Mohammed Al-Naseer in a 2002 hit-and-run death after the government didn’t prove the defendant knew he struck the victim.

A victim’s mother in a similar hit-and-run case contacted the Alliance on Crime, a St. Paul-based victim rights organization, which started advocating for this bill. It was introduced last year, said Kelly Moller, the group’s former executive director, but time ran out to pass it.

There has been some confusion among legislators about when, precisely, a driver would commit a crime under the law. Would it be illegal to hit an animal without stopping? A pothole?

No, a crime is only committed once a person or vehicle is hit and the driver doesn’t investigate, Moller said. The driver already has a legal responsibility to call police if they see that someone is injured or killed.

If the vehicle is unattended, a note can be left for its owner.

“It’s no longer a defense to say ‘I didn’t know what it was,’” she said.

Current state law reads that a driver must stop at an accident involving “immediately demonstrable bodily injury or death.” The proposed legal change adds the five key words “reasonably investigate what was struck.”

Other states have laws similar to Minnesota’s, and the “courts are all over the map with how they interpret it,” Moller said.

The proposed law passed the judiciary panel Thursday on the strength of an amendment that clarified the law but left its core parts intact.

One of the changes, made to assuage critical senators’ concerns, is something of a technical revision; it removes a line saying that “mistake as to what was struck is not a defense for failure to stop and investigate.”

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the Legislature would go too far in this case by telling courts what is and isn’t an acceptable legal defense. The distinction, it appears, is that the Legisature can define a crime but generally doesn’t dictate the arguments that are to be accepted in criminal proceedings.

Mankato-area bicycling advocate Tom Engstrom said the law could save lives.

“I think the value is that it would hopefully get medical help to whoever was hit,” he said. “It seems to make good sense and it seems like that’s a loophole in hit-and-run law that needs to be closed.”

After the hearing, the sister of the man who was struck by Al-Naseer in 2002, Kris Zell of St. Louis Park, said the bill is a definite improvement in the law.

Zell said it was the 2010 Supreme Court decision and the possibility that defendants would use it to escape justice that motivated her to help pass this law.

The bill is ready for floor votes in both the state House and Senate.