Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Details on the Amy Senser Criminal Case

If you're a Minnesotan who occasionally watches the news or reads a newspaper, you've probably seen at least a little something about the hit-and-run allegations against Amy Senser, wife of former Minnesota Vikings tight end and restaurateur Joe Senser.  Amy Senser is alleged to have struck a man near the Riverside exit ramp off westbound I-94 while the man was pouring fuel into his vehicle.  There has been a lot of conjecture and curiosity surrounding this case, as is common with situations like this in the homey state of Minnesota.  I've had a number of people asking me for my opinion on the proceedings recently, so I figured I would touch on a few things in this space regarding the impending criminal case against Mrs. Senser (I'll leave the juicy civil proceedings to someone  more versed in that area of law).  Now, keep in mind, I am not in any way involved in this case, so the facts that I will be using will be what has been reported to the media.  There are usually facts withheld from the media until the time the case goes to trial, so it is likely that we are not aware of every little detail regarding the case.

A lot of people are confused by the defense's theory of the case.  Mrs. Senser's attorney has stated that the defense is not disputing the fact that Mrs. Senser's car was the vehicle that struck the victim, nor are they disputing that she was driving the car at the time.  Most people hear this and say, "Why are we having a trial here?  If she's the one who hit and killed the man, then she's guilty, right?"  Wrong.  The actual causing of death is not the crime here.  There are qualifiers that must be met in order for a person to be criminally liable for injuring or causing the death or another by hitting them with a vehicle.  Those qualifiers include things like operating the vehicle in a grossly negligent matter, in a negligent manner while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, being above the legal limit of .08 BAC, or when the driver in question leaves the scene of the accident.  Simply getting in an accident and causing someone's death is not enough to be guilty of criminal vehicular homicide in Minnesota.  The bare minimum mens rea (lawyer-talk and Latin for "guilty mind") is that of gross negligence.

In the Senser case, the State won't be forced to prove that she was driving the car that killed the victim (that is being stipulated to by the defense), but they will have to prove that she had acted in a manner that was grossly negligent.  The position of the defense is that Mrs. Senser did not have actual knowledge that she hit anyone with her vehicle.  If this assertion is true, the element of gross negligence would be out the window, as would be the fleeing from the scene of a felony element of the crime.  Basically, the point of all this is that in order for Mrs. Senser to be guilty of a crime, she has to have known that she committed the crime, or have acted in such a grossly negligent matter that it was foreseeable that her actions could cause harm to or the death of a person.  This can be an extraordinarily difficult thing to prove, as there were few, if any, eye witnesses at the scene of the crime.  Without knowing the level of care being taken by Mrs. Senser in the moments leading up to and following the accident, the prosecution will have a hard time proving gross negligence.

The preceding statement assumes, however, that the defense can show that it's reasonable that Mrs. Senser didn't know she hit anything.  Mrs. Senser, through her attorney, claims to have thought she hit a piece of construction equipment and didn't think anything else of it.  Because of this claim, the actions of Mrs. Senser immediately following the accident will be closely scrutinized at trial.  The prosecution claims that after the accident, Senser "sped off" and drove around for about half an hour, all the while talking on the phone with her husband, her daughter, and her daughter's friend (with whom she was suppose to be attending a Katy Perry concert).  There were over a dozen calls to her cell phone from these three people during that half hour period.  The defense claims that these calls were made because Mrs. Senser had gotten lost due to not being able to take her normal route east because of road construction.  Her family was simply assisting her in finding her way.

I find this to be a very interesting explanation for the phone calls, as Mrs. Senser has, presumably, lived in the Twin Cities metro area for a very long time, making it somewhat curious (to me, at least) that she would have trouble finding her way around when she was driving in I-94.

There are a number of other pieces of circumstantial evidence indicating that Mrs. Senser may have been under the influence at the time of the accident.  There are eyewitnesses who claim to have seen a vehicle meeting the description being driven erratically on I 94 around the time in question.  Her daughter's friend texted her mother about Mrs. Senser being unable to pick them up from the concert and indicated that she thought Mrs. Senser may have been drinking.  There was a phone call placed from Joe Senser's cellphone to a Twin Cities drug and alcohol abuse center the next morning.  None of these things prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mrs. Senser was intoxicated at the time, but it would not be surprising if a jury finds sufficient evidence to convict based on that inference by the prosecution.

In my opinion, Mrs. Senser's defense attorney has done a good job of listening to his client and laying out a relatively feasible set of events that will challenge the prosecutions ability to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mrs. Senser acted in a grossly negligent manner or that she was under the influence of intoxicates at the time of the accident.  This case will boil down to the amount and credibility of the circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution, as well as the witness testimony.  To me, there seems to be a lack of cold, hard evidence proving that Mrs. Senser knew (or reasonably should have known) that she struck a person on the night in question.  It will be up to the prosecution to prove that she did.

Is it reasonable for Mrs. Senser to have failed to notice the blood on the front of her car?  Is it reasonable that she believe the object she struck was not a vehicle or a person, but a piece of equipment?  Eyewitnesses say that the victim's car had it's flashers on that night, so it's reasonable to assume that Mrs. Senser at least saw the car sitting near the off-ramp.  There are a lot of unanswered questions regarding what Amy Senser did and didn't know that night, and the resolutions to those questions will decide her fate.

One thing I can say with certainty is that Mrs. Senser did the right thing by contacting a criminal defense attorney the first moment she felt like she could potentially be in some trouble.  If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, it is imperative that you get in contact with a qualified, talented, and dedicated criminal defense attorney immediately.  Don't wait until you've been charged with an actual crime and have come to the realization that you may have already said too much.  Protect your rights by getting a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer in your corner.  

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