CHISAGO, Minn. - Around the pond behind Ginger and Patrick Larson’s home are reminders of their tadpole catching, nature-loving, 11-year-old daughter Brooklyn.
“Brooklyn would especially love to catch tadpoles,” Ginger Larson said.
Brooklyn was killed two years ago on a Minnesota highway – but an investigation by KARE 11 reveals that law enforcement never searched the cell phone of the driver responsible for the fatal crash.
KARE 11 also documented a failure to check cell phones in other serious distracted driving accidents.
“I just remember the sound.”
Ginger was driving along Highway 12 in Chisago County. Brooklyn and her younger sister were both buckled in the back seat, when an SUV ran a stop sign, broadsiding them.
“I just remember the sound, and then I don’t remember anything until the car was upside down,” Ginger said.
The SUV crushed the passenger side of their car where Brooklyn was sitting.
“It’s unimaginable,” Patrick Larson said.
“It’s left a hug hole in our family,” Ginger said.
The other driver said he hadn’t fallen asleep and hadn’t been drinking. So, Ginger and Patrick assumed police would check if he’s been on his phone.
“I think that now-a-days, that distracted driving is a major cause of many accidents, and so I think it should be automatic to check if someone’s been on their phone,” Ginger said.
But the Larsons would learn it’s not automatic.
Taking the driver’s word
Although a deputy from the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office questioned the other driver, his phone was never fully inspected.
KARE 11 obtained a recording of the interview with the driver.
Officer: Were you on a cell phone at all?
Officer: Did you have any phone call, did anything distract you?
But the driver admitted that earlier in his drive, he had texted his wife to say he was taking a different route home because of traffic.
Driver: Because I was turning around because of the traffic there.
Officer: Yep. But that was well before the collision?
Even though the driver admitted he texted while behind the wheel prior to the crash, Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter says police never asked for a warrant to inspect the phone.
When asked whether investigators simply took the suspect’s word, Reiter replied, “They did not have any information that would have led them to a different conclusion at the time.”
When asked why they would take his word and not check his cell phone just to be sure, Reiter replied, “I can’t speak to that. I don’t know. I will say my office was not consulted at the time, so I do not know why that was not pursued.”
Phones not inspected in other crashes
KARE 11 discovered the crash that killed Brooklyn isn’t the only serious accident where the cell phones haven’t been checked.
In September, a dump truck driver slammed into the back of cars on Highway 13 in Burnsville. Troopers said they believe he was distracted, but the State Patrol says they never asked for a warrant to examine the driver’s phone.
And in September 2017, a semi truck rear-ended cars stopped on Highway 169 in New Hope, killing 22-year-old Katie Burkey. According to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, that driver’s phone wasn’t searched either, even though experts say a digital examination of a driver’s cell phone can tell you a lot.
“I think of cell phones as snitches in our pockets,” said Mark Lanterman, Chief Technology Officer for Computer Forensic Services.
Lanterman performs forensic examinations of cell phones for law enforcement agencies and knows what can be found.
He says forensic examinations can determine whether the phone was being used for texting, calling, searching the web, sending an email and watching a video, in many cases even if the evidence is deleted before the phone is handed over.
When asked whether authorities should have checked the driver’s phone in the crash that killed Brooklyn Larson, her father said, “I think they should have checked it, yeah. If you’re not going to check it for this type of situation, when would you check it?”
$135 fine in fatal crash
With no proof that he was on his phone, the other driver was only cited with running the stop sign.
But the Larsons still looked forward to the court hearing where they’d be able to give a victim impact statement, face to face with the other driver.
“That is a part of healing, and a part of closure. And to get to say what’s in our heart about our daughter and to get to offer forgiveness and to get to hear what he says,” Ginger said.
But that didn’t happen either.
That’s because the deputy who issued the ticket forgot to check a box on the citation that indicated the crime “endangered life.”
Because of that mistake, there was no hearing. Records show the driver simply paid a fine online of $135, for a crash that took a little girl’s life.
“There’s a little cross that one of the emergency workers put up for Brooklyn. I always just envision, you know, him coming down that road and just wonder why – why?” Ginger said.
KARE 11 attempted to contact the other driver in the crash, but he did not return our calls.
Brooklyn’s family asked that we not name him because they want to focus attention on what they believe is a broken system, not an individual driver.
As it stands now, there’s no evidence that texting caused any of these crashes. Prosecutors tell us they need probable cause to search a driver’s phone. That’s easy if there’s a witness who saw someone texting. But without a witness or an admission from the driver, they say there’s no simple answer
That’s why the Larsons think in serious accidents, checking phones should be automatic.
If you have a suggestion for an investigation, or want to blow the whistle on fraud or government waste, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org