A now-fired Iowa State Patrol supervisor rear-ended another car in March but his agency didn’t give him a ticket and its investigation instead blamed the lead driver, records show.
Legal experts say drivers of rear cars involved in collisions are almost always cited for failure to stop, which carries a fine and can increase one’s auto insurance rates. But Sgt. Michael Haugen didn’t receive any citation after his patrol cruiser smashed into a passenger car that was making a left turn into a Forest City church, causing damage to both vehicles.
The Iowa State Patrol, which has expertise in investigating car accidents, didn’t ask an outside agency to look into the crash and handled the case itself. Lt. Dan Schaffer, commander of the patrol’s Mason City post and Haugen’s boss, was the investigating officer.
Haugen was placed on paid leave March 25 and fired last month amid disciplinary and criminal investigations into misconduct. His firing was to become official Monday if he declined to appeal within a 30-day deadline, which would cut off his $79,000-a-year salary. The patrol’s parent agency, the Iowa Department of Public Safety, has refused to explain the 31-year-old’s alleged misconduct; it’s not clear whether the March 7 accident played into his disciplinary problems.
Haugen had been promoted to sergeant last year.
“It’s a bigger story than just the accident,” Schaffer acknowledged Monday. But he declined to answer questions, saying he had no permission to release information. Department spokesman Alex Murphy didn’t immediately return messages.
The Associated Press used the open records law to obtain records related to the crash, which occurred in a 45 mph zone on Highway 9.
Schaffer’s report placed blame on the front driver, 46-year-old Wiliam Lawrence of Forest City, saying he made “an abrupt left turn” into a church driveway without properly signaling. Haugen tried to swerve to the outside lane but hit Lawrence’s rear passenger-side corner, the report said. The crash caused an estimated $700 in damage to Lawrence’s 2002 Saturn and $2,000 in damage to Haugen’s state-owned Ford Crown Victoria.
Lawrence wasn’t ticketed in the crash. But Schaffer wrote him a $330 citation for driving without a valid license, which Lawrence has paid.
Experts in Iowa motor vehicle law said ordinary drivers who rear-end cars would typically be cited for failing to stop under similar circumstances, which included good road conditions in broad daylight.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, the rear-ending vehicle is ticketed,” attorney Jason Abraham said. “I’d say the report was written in a way to benefit the officer.”
Even if the front driver didn’t signal his turn, the car’s brake lights should have indicated he was stopping, experts noted.
“I’m surprised that this patrolman would not have received at least something for that. You can’t just strike a vehicle in front and not have some responsibility for that collision,” West Des Moines attorney Russ Hixson said.
He also expressed surprise that the patrol handled the investigation rather than turning it over to the Winnebago County sheriff’s department or another agency.
“We’d see that as clearly a biased opinion or investigation and not adequate,” he said.
Des Moines attorney Kent Balducchi chuckled when presented with the crash details.
“In some circles, they might call that a ‘law enforcement privilege’,” he said. “It seems to me that a citation to the officer would have been appropriate. Certainly the fact that the lead driver didn’t have a current license … really had no bearing on how they were driving.”
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