Stats don’t tell the whole story
At the beginning of this week, a quietly negotiated agreement in District Court in Watford City took place where a change of plea was scheduled in an Aggravated Reckless Driving case. The parties went through the rote motions to an amended charge of Reckless Endangerment, both class A misdemeanors (The new charge doesn’t impact the driver record of the defendant). A move that cancelled a two-day jury trial scheduled to begin on Thursday October 8th. As is often the case, misdemeanor offenses don’t garner a lot of public attention and this one was no different. Misdemeanors, by their nature, in most circumstances are not considered highly egregious offenses to society. What folks outside of these proceedings didn’t realize was the underlying case that led to this particular case conclusion.
On June 7, 2019 McKenzie County Deputy Sheriff Natasha Skala, who had recently been promoted to Detective (an impressive feat, having been with the agency since only the previous year, and in law enforcement a little under three years total having started with the Minot Police Department in 2016), was on her way to investigate a fire case. While waiting to turn off of highway 1806 north of Watford City, the young law enforcement officer’s vehicle was slammed into from behind by a driver operating a large commercial vehicle. Natasha’s vehicle caught fire and by the grace of God was rescued by a colleague who removed her from the vehicle before she was burned. In the blink of an eye, Natasha suffered life threating injuries including “breaking seven ribs, a bruised lung, an upper neck fracture, several broken lower back vertebrae, broken clavicle, broken humerus and basically shattered shoulder” according to her sister who shared the terrifying news on a Facebook page. What was not immediately known was that Natasha also suffered a traumatic brain injury that, to this day continues to plague her with memory problems. Also, soon to be learned, were how quickly the financial limitations that medical insurance and ND Workforce Safety & Insurance and Unemployment Insurance could be met, leaving Natasha unduly financially burdened. And while private fundraising efforts civil settlements exist to make victims “whole”, the reality is that is impossible in circumstances like Natasha’s.
Despite her best efforts to remain in law enforcement, Natasha’s injuries and needs for ongoing treatment and care have made it impossible for her to continue a career as a Peace Officer. A promising career in the service of the people of this state gone, in a fraction of a second. The physical, mental, and emotional health of a woman, who was a hard charging hockey player in school as she prepared herself for a career that she always dreamed about, was irreparably and permanently altered.
The investigation into the incident yielded what it could leading to probable cause, and a charge for the highest classification of an offense in such a situation where the victim survives and there isn’t evidence of chemical impairment; Aggravated Reckless Driving, a class A misdemeanor. Despite the staggering losses both individually to Natasha, and to the state taxpayers who paid for her training and licensing as a Peace Officer no crime exists in the North Dakota Century Code which remotely matches the severity of the loss. Natasha would have had to lose her life, not “simply” life as she knew it, in order for her perpetrator to have been charged with even a class C felony (the lowest classification of felony offense in North Dakota). Prosecutors in our state have their hands tied when they seek justice in cases like Natasha’s.
Governor Doug Burgum has been at the forefront in promoting the ND Department of Transportation “Vision Zero North Dakota” traffic safety program even with the Coronavirus Emergency occupying a lion share of his time in protecting the people of this state. This worthy program which promotes strategies with the goal of bringing down our highway death rates to zero, while critical to preserving the lives of North Dakotans, focuses on only one tragic result of dangerous driving, highway death. What’s left out of the headlines if and when death rates are happily and thankfully lowered, is in non-fatal crashes and collisions those who survive are effectively put in a single category regardless of level of injuries. While the NDDOT’s annual “Crash Summary” report details the number of injury crashes, cases like Natasha’s with her life altering injuries are reported as merely another number, not different than injury crashes resulting in say, treatment for mild whiplash. Humanity and clarity are lost in the statistics. The public unless involved in specific cases, doesn’t see the impact.
As our legislature is gearing up for their next session, the time is right for our Representatives and Senators to draft, and during this session pass, a bill that adds a felony classification to our reckless driving statute. The people of North Dakota, people like Natasha, and our families who suffer such devastation while surviving reckless drivers, deserve nothing less than the protections afforded by classification of offense that is more closely comparable to their losses. A classification that misdemeanors simply don’t get close to meeting. It’s time.
Moss is president of Souris Valley Regional Lodge #7, ND Fraternal Order of Police.