A proposed state law would have protected Charlottesville driver

On Saturday, nonviolent anti-Nazi protestor Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville when a car driven by a white nationalist slammed into other cars, sending them into a crowd. Nineteen others were injured. That driver, James Fields, Jr., now faces multiple criminal charges in Virginia, including second-degree murder for Heyer’s death. Because it’s second-degree murder, prosecutors don’t have to prove a specific intent to injure or kill, just an intention to cause the accident.

Does this sequence of events sound familiar? It should. In our last legislative session, hotly-debated House Bill 1203 would have given total immunity – civil and criminal – to any driver who unintentionally injures or kills someone trying to block traffic. Because we have definitions of a criminal’s required mental state at the time of the act, “Unintentional” does not mean “accidental.” There are other definitions of other mental states, including reckless, knowing, and negligent acts. Under this framework, “unintentional” just means “any mental state other than intentional.”

HB 1203 was a statement that one person’s life was worth less than another person’s “reckless,” “knowing,” or “negligent” action. HB 1203 required the actual, specific intent to injure or kill. Without that intent, there was zero liability, and total immunity from prosecution – no crime whatsoever.

HB 1203 would have also declared it unlawful for any person to walk in the street when a sidewalk was present. So, In a nightmare scenario where HB 1203 is law, and the events of Charlottesville occur in our state, Heather Heyer dies a criminal. Fields would assert immunity from prosecution, unless prosecutors can prove that Fields intentionally tried to kill Meyer – a tough stretch, considering he hit cars, not people, and he didn’t know Meyer at all.

Thankfully, our nightmare scenario has not come to pass. HB 1203 was defeated in our State House, 50-41. Those 50 had the insight to understand that someone who disregards a huge risk, or is aware that they’re breaking the law even if they don’t intend to, and they make the stupid choice to act anyway, should be punished. A lot of those 50 probably didn’t support the DAPL protest, the target of HB 1203. But those 50 recognized that all victims are worth protecting, regardless of their beliefs. I thank them for their vote, and so should you.

Schultz is the owner of Worthington & Schultz, P.C., a criminal defense and debt collection law firm in Minot.