September 6, 2018 at 1:46 p.m.

2016 fatality motivates changes to state law

2016 fatality motivates changes to state law
2016 fatality motivates changes to state law

The second anniversary September 9 of a crash, that took the life of a young girl, is going to be another tough one for her mom and dad, Pat and Ginger Larson, of rural Shafer.  They are working their way out of two tragedies-- their daughter’s senseless death at the age of 11 and the anguish of being let down by the justice system.
 
The Larsons can’t turn back the clock and make their family whole;  but they have decided they want to see something done legislatively with the goal of eliminating the painful process they endured.

There is a  four way intersection at County 20 and 9 between Almelund and Center City, that has four all-way stop signs now.  This extra safety measure was implemented not long after the Larson’s daughter died at that location in 2016.    

When Brooklyn sustained fatal injuries this crossroad was a two way stop. A local man, 56,  driving a Ford Explorer missed the stop sign while eastbound on #20 and smashed into the Chevrolet Cruz that Brooklyn was riding in.  

He was ticketed for failing to stop and paid a fine of less than $150.  His legal liability was discharged after paying the ticket immediately after receiving notice by mail.
Chisago County Victim Witness Coordinator Wendy Stenberg said she had awaited the results from the state patrol accident reconstruction team which  took nine months to complete.

Upon checking the status prosecutors realized this case was part of a legal mis-communication. This was closed-out as a “payable” misdemeanor.  

Staff tried to connect with the driver and set up a restorative listening session among the parties, using an independent mediator.  “It didn’t go anywhere,” Stenberg said.
The Larsons really don’t have any desire to persecute the driver of the other car.  

They now just want to explain their efforts moving forward on whatever needs to happen to fine-tune the reckless-careless driving law.  If it didn’t work for them it’s certain to fail somebody else.

Pat recalls, “It was like a kick in the gut,” when he heard the case went through as a simple ticket.  “It was like they didn’t place any importance on our daughter’s life.”

Emotional chemistry transpires in courtrooms when offenders own-up to damages that their actions set in motion.  Victims get the opportunity to confront or absolve an offender, and get to describe how the incident impacted their lives.  Generally the outcome is a greater understanding on both sides.
Ginger Larson explained that she didn’t even get to tell Brooklyn’s life story to the court, as brief as it was.  

“I just wanted to hear an apology,” she added.

Chisago County Victim Witness Coordinator Stenberg said this frustrated everyone in the county attorney division.  “But there was no mechanism to require the driver to come into court.”

Hopefully this is part of what state lawmakers will change.  

Enter MN House member Bob Dettmer, whose House district includes part of Chisago County, Forest Lake and southward.

Brooklyn’s dad wrestled for Coach Dettmer with the Forest Lake Rangers.  Ginger had Dettmer as a teacher. He told a reporter that he hears from past students and athletes all the time --but when the Larsons reached out he was truly touched.

Dettmer explained in a phone interview, “The key thing is to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Brooklyn’s life was not honored in the reckless driving misdemeanor-gross misdemeanor process existing now, and Rep. Dettmer is looking forward to addressing that.

He is eager to draft legislation, a stand alone bill, he said, not one that’s a piece of a huge omnibus action,  to amend the relevant statutes.
He will ask the Larsons to testify and he will find a co-sponsor to carry the measure in the Senate.

He has met over the summer with local county officials and he will probably ask the county attorney to testify in St. Paul too.

The process of handling growing numbers of incidents of distracted driving resulting in loss of life, needs to change, he believes.

Stenberg explained that “...just because there is a death” -- prosecutors don’t have the authority to automatically enhance charges in fatal crashes.  

Based on a blood draw done at the hospital, there was no use of drugs or alcohol by the driver.   “And we couldn’t prove anything else in connection,” she added.

This inability to pursue serious charges is another part of what needs to change.  The county can only do what it is enabled to do under state law.

A refresher session was held for law enforcement this summer on ticketing and the importance of a very deliberate response at any accident scene.  The county attorney created a new charging policy where attorneys write and file their own complaint in cases where a death occurs.  

This is the result of an acknowledged mis-step on the part of law enforcement. The “endangerment box” on the accident ticket form for this crash-- which gets submitted to court administration-- had not been checked off.   With the box empty this violation was processed as a “payable offense.”

Dettmer told a reporter that a favorite thing he gets to do is walk with visiting students through the capitol on their field trips-- reminding them how the system here “...may not be perfect but it is the best in the world.”  

The Larsons will be able to weigh in on that once they see a new law, with Brooklyn’s name attached, on the governor’s desk.
 





 







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