Man Found Guilty In Fatal Texting While Driving Crash Sentenced To…Mandatory Public Relations?

I think texting while driving as a threat to public safety has been grossly exaggerated, and the data seems to prove it. Cell phone use was a “contributing factor” (a rather broad definition, to be sure) in less than 1 percent of traffic crashes in North Dakota. Nationally, cell phone use was a factor in just 1.2 percent of fatal crashes and 0.98 percent of all crashes, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s Distracted Driving report from 2012.

It’s just not that big an issue.

But, for better or worse, the anti-texting while driving campaign has become something of a political fad with politicians lining up to push knee-jerk prosecutions and policies. This, though, may be one of the most ridiculous examples of government activism in this area. A Fargo man found guilty of texting while driving his way into a fatal accident has been sentenced to 30 days in jail…and 100 days of mandatory public relations.

FARGO, N.D. — A North Dakota man has been ordered to embark on a 100-day public campaign about the dangers of texting and driving as part of his sentence in a fatal crash.

A judge on Tuesday ordered 21-year-old Nicholas Milbrandt to take part on the campaign and serve 30 days in jail.

The Kindred man pleaded guilty to felony negligent homicide in the death of 61-year-old Royce Rodacker in August.

The story is tragic, but I’m not sure why it’s worse that Mr. Milbrandt was distracted by a cell phone instead of, say, a cup of Starbucks or his car radio. But setting that aside, since when is it ok for the government to sentence us to engage in campaigning for a political cause?

That’s essentially what Milbrandt has been sentenced to. He will be required to advocate a specific position on distracted driving policy. He’s been sentenced to perform as an activist. Almost a lobbyist, if his public relation campaign takes him before lawmakers.

Regardless of your thoughts on distracted driving policy, is that a road we want to go down?

I’m reminded of a recent North Dakota Supreme Court case in which a district judge ordered a group that had been advocating on behalf of a ballot measure to abolish property taxes to publish an apology to public officials they accused of violating election laws. Judge Bruce Romanick’s ruling – both the requirement for an apology and nearly $30,000 in reimbursed legal fees – was ultimately struck down by the state Supreme Court in a 4-1 decision, with the only dissenter arguing that the court should have gone further and addressed why Romanick demanded an apology.

“I believe this Court should now answer the question of the permissibility of the district court’s ordering the plaintiffs to publish a retraction of their allegations of corruption,” wrote Justice Dale Sandstrom.

I think that’s an extremely pertinent question, both of Rominick’s original ruling and Mr. Milbrandt’s sentencing.

Can courts and prosecutors make campaigning for a specific political position part of the punishment for a crime? It seems to me that would set a dangerous precedent that is ripe for abuse.

Perhaps Milbrandt was glad to take this sentence. Perhaps he’s happy to spend time campaigning against texting while driving, as opposed to spending more time behind bars. But the idea of the government mandating the exercise of your 1st amendment rights as the part of the punishment for a crime smacks of coercion.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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