Careless or reckless drivers whose actions cause a deadly accident or severe injuries could face steeper penalties under a new bill proposed by District 51 Sen. Jim Carlson (DFL), who represents Eagan.
Current Minnesota laws prevent prosecutors from charging careless drivers with anything more significant than a misdemeanor—even if that driver's behavior caused a death or severe injuries. In Minnesota, the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor crime is 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Carlson's proposal would allow drivers whose careless actions caused a death or great bodily harm to face gross misdemeanor charges. A person convicted of a gross misdemeanor in Minnesota could be sentenced to a maximum of one year in prison and $3,000 in fines.
Under Carlson's bill, careless or reckless behavior includes texting, talking on a cell phone except in a hands-free manner, street racing and falling asleep while driving, among other conditions.
The bill—one of Carlson's first as a sitting Senator this session—addresses a gap in Minnesota's legal system, Carlson said.
“I think we just don’t have a serious enough charge to appropriately address these kinds of incident where someone is willfully paying no attention to their driving, and causes a death," Carlson said.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, who has tried to get similar measures passed in the Minnesota Legislature since 2006, is a strong proponent of Carlson's legislation. In Dakota County alone, nine drivers prosecuted for careless driving have killed a total of 14 people in recent years, Backstrom said.
The high-profile cases include a driver who killed two construction workers in Burnsville in 2011, and an Inver Grove Heights woman who caused the death of three others following a 2008 crash.
"I don't believe the penalty should be the same for killing someone or causing serious injuries to someone as for leaving the road and hitting a mailbox," Backstrom said on Wednesday.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. If the legislation makes it to the Senate floor, Backstrom is confident that it will be approved.
Both Backstrom and Carlson said they hope the bill also gets people who talk on or use cell phones or smart phones in the car to think twice about their actions.
"I think it will send a clear message that everyone needs to take precautions to be safe while their driving a car, we have far too much dist driving going on with cell phones and text messaging," Backstrom said.
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