ST PAUL, Minn. — A fatal crash between a Green Line train and a car driven by a prominent Twin Cities ballroom dancer has sparked bipartisan efforts to close a legal loophole documented in a KARE 11 investigation.
“We need to see that light rail traffic is held to at least the same standard as a car, bus, or other vehicle,” Seth Westlake said as he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the state legislature.
Seth and his older brother Peter spoke to state lawmakers in a pair of committee hearings about the July 2017 light rail crash that claimed the life of their 29-year-old brother Nic Westlake.
The brothers expressed their family’s frustration with the fact that the light rail operator could not be criminally charged because of Minnesota’s antiquated traffic code.
“It seems pretty clear, it’s a pretty obvious hole in the law,” Peter Westlake said.
In January, KARE 11 reported that prosecutors could not file charges against the operator of the light rail train – even though an investigation found he was at fault in the fatal accident.
A traffic camera above the intersection of Eustis and University in St. Paul captured the crash in startling clarity. It shows the Green Line train slamming into the car Nic was driving.
He was trapped in the driver’s seat as the vehicle started on fire. St. Paul firefighters freed him, but he died of his injuries at the hospital.
When Westlake’s car enters the intersection, the video shows his traffic signal was still yellow. In fact, KARE 11’s analysis revealed the light did not turn red until two seconds after the train collided with the car.
What’s more, train operators have their own signals. A vertical bar means go and a horizontal bar means stop. Cameras onboard the light rail train clearly show the signals were horizontal before the train entered the intersection.
But the train operator, Abdellatif El Maarouf faced no charges.
The St. Paul City Attorney’s office declined to file charges even though Assistant St. Paul City Attorney Stephen Christie wrote that he believed the train operator was at fault.
His memo declining prosecution reads: “In the opinion of this office, the investigation clearly establishes that Mr. El Maarouf operated a light rail train in an unsafe manner which was responsible for the collision with the motor vehicle on July 15, 2017.” The memo says the train operator “disobeyed the LRT traffic signal’s horizontal line.”
However, the prosecutor wrote, “In the Traffic Code, the definition of “vehicle” specifically excludes a rail train.”
The memo continued: “Thus there can be no criminal charges in this case for any violation of the Traffic Code because it does not apply to the operation of a rail train.”
“One of the most challenging conversations we had to have was with the district attorney,” Peter Westlake told lawmakers.
He explained the prosecutor, “Sat us down and said, yeah, everything shows that this guy ran a red light and if he were in a bus, if he were in a car, if he were in a truck, we would be pressing charges. But because he’s driving a light rail there’s nothing we can do because that’s how the law is written.”
A family’s fight for reform
Peter and Seth Westlake have appeared at every hearing for the bills, lobbying for reform.
“We just want to see that changed,” Peter explained to lawmakers. “We think that it’s appropriate that light rail operators driving three-hundred-thousand-pound vehicles should be held to at least the same standard as you or I when we drive a car down the street.”
The testimony by the Westlake brothers seemed to move the Representatives and Senators they addressed.
“You mentioned that the county attorney said that there was nothing they could do, and he might be right,” said Senator Kari Dziedzic (DFL– Minneapolis). “But he was wrong in saying there was nothing no one could do,” she added, “because you are doing the right thing by bringing this forward and you should be proud of that. And your brother would be proud of that. So, I thank you for being here.”
“I see this bill as a legacy bill to Nic,” said Representative Connie Bernardy (DFL–New Brighton).
The bipartisan measures passed with zero opposition in the hearings. The bill now goes to the full Senate floor and has just one hearing left in the House.
“On to next steps,” said Peter. “We’re hoping we can get this passed this session and it’s making good progress.”
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