On an icy morning in 2009 Richard W. Wright slid off a North Idaho road and knocked over a speed-limit sign. The retired Florida police officer and then-Kootenai County coffee shop owner went on to work.
Even though the only damage was to his car door and to a roadside sign, which he paid $200 to fix, Wright was charged with the misdemeanor crime of leaving the scene of an accident. Wright represented himself in court, paid a $200 fine, served two days on a county work program and had his license suspended for a year.
On Tuesday, the Idaho Court of Appeals overturned Wright’s conviction, saying the charge of leaving the scene of an accident applies to multi-car accidents, not to a single car bumping into a sign.
“Given the way this all went down, I hope that means that people like Mr. Wright won’t be charged with this offense in single-vehicle collisions again,” said Wright’s Coeur d’Alene attorney, Richard Kuck. “It’s good to have that cleaned up in Idaho.”
In many states, including Washington, a minor accident like this one means a driver must fill out a self-reporting form, Kuck said, and that’s what Wright intended to do. But two witnesses followed him, took down his license plate number and reported the incident to police, who went to Wright’s home and talked to his wife, and then confronted him at his business in front of his customers.
“In Idaho, the only collisions that people are required to immediately report to law enforcement are $1,500 damage to any single person’s property, or injury. So this was just a non-reportable accident,” Kuck said.
He added, “This got started because he upset the police officer – we call it contempt of cop.”
A separate state law sets out requirements for motorists who strike “fixtures upon or adjacent to a highway.” That law requires the driver to “take reasonable steps” to locate and notify the owner of the property that’s been hit, and provide insurance and other information.
Wright was charged instead under a law regarding accidents involving “damage to a vehicle which is driven or attended by any person.” The Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision written by Judge Karen Lansing, ruled that that refers to a person other than oneself.
“In the case of a single-car accident, without injuries to a third party, there is no other person to whom the driver could provide information at the scene,” the court found. “A requirement that a driver stop and remain at the scene absent any person with whom to exchange information would be absurd.”
The Idaho Attorney General’s office, which defended the state in the appeal, had no comment Tuesday on the decision.