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St. Paul shells out $100,000 for distracted driving crashes involving cops

The next thing he saw was a red pickup truck headed straight toward him.

The next thing he saw was a red pickup truck headed straight toward him. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Back in 2017, St. Paul police officer Sam Keller was on his way to a domestic disturbance call. It was December, just after 4 a.m. The streets were dark.

He was headed eastbound on Maryland Avenue in the Payne-Phalen area when he took a quick look at his squad laptop to confirm a few details about the call. When he looked up again, he realized he was in the middle of an intersection, and the light was red. The next thing he saw was a red pickup truck headed straight toward him.

According to police reports filed after the incident, Keller tried in vain to swerve left and avoid the truck, but the two vehicles still smacked together. His squad car spun completely around like an ice dancer and plowed into a van. Keller was “jolted,” and something struck the right side of his head. He was bleeding when the car finally came to a stop, but he was otherwise okay.

The same couldn’t be said for Mr. Pete’s Pizza, which was located right on the corner of Maryland and Arcade. The pickup, driven by Gregory Fellman, veered straight into the storefront.

Soon, other officers and an ambulance arrived to take stock of the mess. Thankfully, nobody appeared to be seriously hurt. Fellman had a bit of back and neck pain, but he didn’t need to be hospitalized. The van driver, Khang Dinh Nguyen, was unharmed. But neither Fellman’s truck nor the squad car would run, and Mr. Pete’s was an absolute disaster.

It wasn't the first case of distracted driving by police, and it wouldn't be the last. In November 2018, the Pioneer Press reports, St. Paul Officer Donald Chouinard was looking at his squad laptop when he rear-ended a vehicle waiting for a light. Both Keller and Chouinard were reprimanded for inattentive driving.

On Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council approved a payout of over $100,000 for insurance claims related to the incidents. The city ended up paying nearly $87,000 to Arcade & Maryland Development, which owns the Mr. Pete’s building, and nearly $16,000 to the driver’s insurance company for the other crash.

It’s clear enough based on documents and the officers themselves what caused the accidents. Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut answer for how to prevent them. St. Paul Police spokesperson Mike Ernster told the PiPress that even though Minnesotans are now required to be hands-free with phones in their cars, police still sometimes have to use devices during emergencies. It’s the price to pay so they can “perform their duties effectively.”

But not everyone feels everything is square. Alex Aqel told the PiPress he received about $14,000 from his insurance company, but in the end, lost “a great deal of money” on Mr. Pete’s. He never recovered from the damages and had to close the shop.

“I think it’s unfair,” he said. “I’m the one who paid the price in the end. I’m the one who had to leave.”