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Court of appeals construes owner’s defense to hit and run liability under § 346.675(4)(b)2.

City of Eau Claire v. Debora Ann West, 2017AP1527, District 3, 5/22/18 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

Section 346.675 provides that the owner of a vehicle is liable for a hit-and-run violation that his or her vehicle is involved in, regardless of whether the owner is operating the vehicle at the time of the violation, but also subject to certain defenses. One of the defenses, § 346.675(4)(b)2., allows the owner to avoid liability by providing the name and address of the person operating the vehicle at the time of the violation along with other information sufficient to provide probable cause that the owner wasn’t operating at the time of the violation. Contrary to the circuit court’s conclusion, the evidence in this case wasn’t sufficient to conclude that West established that defense.

¶16     …. For a vehicle owner to avoid liability, subdiv. (4)(b)2. expressly requires the owner to provide an officer with both: (1) “the name and address of the person operating the vehicle at the time of the violation”; and (2) “sufficient information” for an officer “to determine that probable cause d[id] not exist to believe” that the owner operated the vehicle at the time of the violation. See id. The statutory language plainly requires, at a minimum, that an owner provide both sets of information to the officer in order to avail himself or herself of this defense.

¶17     The record establishes that West failed to provide “the name and address of the person operating the vehicle at the time of the violation.” The circuit court made no factual finding to the contrary. Rather, West told [Officer] Zurbuchen she had lent her vehicle to Price, whom Zurbuchen was able to contact. But Zurbuchen later learned Price could not have been the driver at the time of the incident. As the circuit court acknowledged, Zurbuchen’s investigation ultimately yielded no conclusive evidence on the identity of the person who operated West’svehicle at the time of the hit-and-run violation, and nobody else was charged or convicted of a hit-and-run violation stemming from the incident. Even assuming Zurbuchen could have ruled out West as the driver of the vehicle based upon the information she provided, pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 346.675(4)(b)2. West was still required to identify the actual driver’s identity in order to avoid liability. She never did so.

¶18     Moreover, the notion that West may have inadvertently lost track of who was driving her vehicle is immaterial …. West may not have had “possession” of the vehicle at the time of the incident, but § 346.675 refers to a vehicle’s “owner,” a term that is defined in Wis. Stat. § 340.01(42) as “a person who holds the legal title of a vehicle.” Simply put, West admitted (and the circuit court found) that she owned the vehicle.

¶19     Finally, while the circuit court fittingly branded this situation as“unusual,” the statute nevertheless anticipates the imposition of liability on a vehicle’s owner under this very fact pattern. The purpose of Wis. Stat. § 346.675, as is apparent from its text, is to ensure that a vehicle owner keeps sufficient watch over who is operating his or her vehicle, as well as providing traffic officers with the information necessary to prosecute hit-and-run violations involving the owner’s vehicle. …. Pursuant to § 346.675, law enforcement was authorized to cite West with the violation here because she failed to provide sufficient information to aid the hit- and-run investigation, such that no other person could be charged.

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