(KMSP) - Drivers, who were busted for being a danger on the roads, with the evidence against them overwhelming, often find themselves avoiding punishment. This because of a gap in the law discovered by the Fox 9 Investigators that is big enough to drive a truck through.
THE DANGERS OF CELL PHONE USE BEHIND THE WHEEL
Chuck Maurer and his 10-year-old daughter, Cassy, were on their way home from the library in July 2015.
"He had the best hugs. He was the most loving guy you'd ever meet," said Chuck's niece, Rhonda Maurer
The Maurer's mini-van never had a chance after being hit by a driver who went through a red light while she was texting. They were rushed by air ambulance to a trauma center. Chuck died and Cassy had a massive head injury.
"The first night she looked so perfect, like there was nothing wrong with her," recalled Rhonda.
The family waited by her bedside. They were told not to speak to or to touch her. It would be too much stimulus for her distressed brain. For ten days Cassy's family hoped and prayed for a miracle.
Four days after the family buried Chuck, Cassy passed away.
THREAT TO PUBLIC FROM DISTRACTED DRIVING INTENSIFIES WITH THE SIZE OF THE VEHICLE
A young husband and father to be, Jason Songer, was killed in a 2014 crash in La Crosse, WI.
Two others were seriously hurt. Their families are still too devastated to talk about it.
The driver of the dump truck that hit them was checking Facebook on his phone at the time of the accident.
Because the danger is so great, cell phone laws for commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers are much stricter than other vehicles on the road.
CMV drivers are not allowed to look down to check a text, or look at the web, they aren’t even allowed to talk on a phone unless it’s with a hands free device.
FOX 9 INVESTIGATION UNCOVERS A DISTURBING TREND
Despite all of these regulations, many commercial drivers who get busted are avoiding penalties.
The Fox 9 Investigators obtained state records of every cell phone ticket issued to commercial drivers between September 2014 and September 2015. A computer assisted analysis of the data revealed some stunning results. Of the more than 200 cases reviewed 49 percent were either dismissed or reduced to a lesser charge.
The findings are even more troubling when you consider many of the cases had strong evidence to support a conviction.
Cameras in police squad cars often catch drivers in the act. Through a state records request, the Fox 9 Investigators asked the State Patrol for several copies of dash cam videos which documented CMV cell phone offenses.
One driver was carrying oxygen and was seen by an officer talking on a cell phone when pulled over.
Some even admit their guilt on video.
Officer on dash camera video: "Any reason you are on your cell phone?"
Driver: "No, work just called me to make sure where I was at."
Yet each of these drivers either had their ticket dismissed or reduced once they went to court.
In fact our analysis shows 25 percent statewide got off with no penalty at all.
"That angers me, because it allows people to think we can continue doing it," said Rhonda Maurer. "They need to make an example of somebody."
City attorneys are charged with prosecuting the violations. Martin Norder, the city attorney for multiple municipalities in Ramsey County, told the Fox 9 Investigators about the most common arguments he hears when dealing with the cases.
"A lot of it is I'm going to lose my job, or I (will) get a mark on my record," said Norder.
The violations are serious for commercial drivers, it could jeopardize their licenses and the safety rating of the companies which own the trucks can also take a hit.
"If they have a clean record we usually give them something to at least keep it off their record and keep them from getting a point and possibly losing their job," said Martin.
Our investigation found some prosecutors are even more lenient.
Consider the case of Chad Boyce. He got three cell phone tickets over a span of 6 months last year. Two were dismissed.
"I just remember the arrogance of his attitude that, 'I had the last one thrown out and I'll get this one thrown out too so give me whatever ticket you want,’" State Trooper Nick Folger remembered.
Though, Boyce told us he doesn't recall saying that to the trooper.
What he does remember is his first cell phone ticket was dismissed by the Minneapolis City Attorney's office.
Boyce said a hearing officer offered him a deal. "You've got a ticket for an unsecured load and a cell phone ticket. Which one do you want plead guilty to? I said unsecured load," he told the Fox 9 Investigators.
The city attorney's office declined to be interviewed about the case. Fox 9 asked why they went easy on Boyce, given the fact he had other traffic convictions and a felony assault already on his record.
No commercial drivers who were busted for being on their phones would go on camera for an interview. A lot of them said they were afraid of losing their jobs, which is the excuse many used to have the ticket tossed.
Some claimed they didn't know using their cell phone behind the wheel was illegal. Others said they were in stop and go traffic so it wasn't a danger. And others said it was an emergency call they just had to take.
LEGISLATOR SAYS ACTION IS NEEDED
State Representative Frank Hornstein authored the legislation which outlawed texting and driving in Minnesota.
"If half of the people are getting off, there's something systemic that has to be fixed," said Hornstein. "We need to have consistency in sentencing and enforcement on these laws."
He now wants to hold hearings into what the Fox 9 Investigators discovered.
Chuck and Cassy Maurer GoFundMe page
JASON SONGER MUSIC FOUNDATION
After Songer's death, his family set up "THE JASON LEE SONGER MUSIC FOUNDATION' which helps students who can't afford musical instruments. People or businesses can send a tax deductible donation to Merchants Bank at 316 Main St. La Crescent, MN. 55947 or call 1-507 895 4486.