A legislative committee has endorsed a bill from Albany Rep. Andy Olson that seeks to close a loophole in Oregon's hit-and-run laws.
The loophole should be closed. And while we also fervently hope that the circumstances that prompted Olson to introduce the bill in the first place never occur again, that hope likely is in vain.
Olson's House Bill 4055 would modify three state statutes to add language that says drivers who aren't immediately aware that they have injured or killed someone in a crash must call 911 and perform other duties as soon as they learn they were involved.
The bill is inspired by the heart-wrenching October 2013 case in Forest Grove in which two girls were run over as they lay in a leaf pile. The two stepsisters, 6-year-old Anna Dieter Eckerdt and 11-year-old Abigail Robinson, were killed.
The driver of the car that hit the girls, Cynthia Garcia-Cisneros, then 19, was heading home with her boyfriend and brother. She testified that she had felt a bump while driving over the leaf pile, but believed that she had hit a rock.
A jury in 2014 found Garcia-Cisneros guilty of failing to perform the duties of a driver. She was sentenced to three years of probation.
But last May, a judge with the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. The judge ruled that Oregon law does not require a driver to return to the scene of an accident after leaving and later learning that someone was injured or killed. The court also found that there was insufficient evidence to establish that Garcia-Cisneros knew or had reason to know that she hurt the girls when she drove over the leaves.
Olson's House Bill 4055 would require drivers who discover only after leaving the scene that they might have been involved in a collision that resulted in injury or death to immediately contact 911 and provide information about the incident to the dispatcher.
Olson has said that the bill is structured so that it doesn't constitute self-incrimination when a driver reports the details of a possible collision after the event, but that issue could be the bill's weak spot: At a hearing on the measure last week, a legislative representative for the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association argued that the bill could be open to challenge under the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits self-incrimination.
But Bracken McKey, the Washington County prosecutor involved in the Garcia-Cisneros case, argued that the bill doesn't violate the Fifth Amendment. He said the bill doesn't change the information drivers must provide to authorities after a crash; instead, it just mandates that those drivers who aren't immediately aware of the possibility that someone was hurt or killed in a crash report exactly the same sort of information required of drivers who do stop at the scene of the crash. McKey dubbed the bill "Anna and Abigail's Law."
The hearing last week on the bill also featured emotional testimony from the mother of the girls, Susan Dieter-Robinson. According to an account of the hearing in The Oregonian, she told legislators that "If the law changes, our girls will have had a small piece in making that happen, and that will make us very proud." She also called the collision that killed her daughters "a perfect storm."
Olson's bill, which cleared the House Committee on Judiciary last week with bipartisan support, is an excellent example of exactly the type of legislation suitable for the short 35-day sessions that the Legislature holds in even-numbered years. It doesn't represent a huge new policy direction. It merely makes a small modification to an existing law.
But it's still important. We hope that no one ever has to go through anything like the perfect storm Dieter-Robinson and her husband endured. But something similar eventually will come into play — and when it does, the provisions in House Bill 4055 could make a difference. (mm)