VNL Investigates: Why do crash investigations, charges take so long?

Published: May. 29, 2023 at 6:23 PM CDT
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FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - It’s been nearly two months since a West Fargo crash left a U.S. Marine veteran dead and many waiting for answers.

The other driver in the crash, 28-year-old Taquoya Saldana, was initially charged with DUI, but those charges have since been dismissed pending what officials say are more serious counts likely to be filed.

However, the wait has several in the community wondering what’s taking so long, so Valley News Live started digging for the answers.

The files of eight serious or fatal crashes from across North Dakota are still waiting to be reviewed by ND Highway Patrol’s reconstruction team. Each of those crashes has the potential to lead to criminal charges.

“It’s those cases that we have two vehicles involved, three vehicles involved or just some really unusually circumstances that we’ll get reconstruction involved to help determine how did this crash happen and who’s responsible?” NDHP Capt. Bryan Niewind said.

Sixteen men and women make up NDHP’s crash reconstruction team. Some fly drones to re-create 3D picture of the crash scene, others are tech experts used to scour through hundreds of hours of data from driver and passengers’ phones, as well as the data from each vehicle’s ‘black box.’

“In the seconds before the impact, what were their speeds? Were there other indicators on the dash that the computer could read? Was there an application of the brakes? How hard were they on the gas?” Cass County Assistant State’s Attorney Robert Vallie said.

“Sometimes there’s just no explanation of why a crash happened and really, the only explanation is in that phone. A lot of people don’t tell us they were distracted or they were looking at their phone,” Niewind said.

Vallie says witness statements are also taken, but because those witnesses are usually driving when a crash occurs, sometimes at highway speeds, they don’t always stop which makes them hard to track down after the fact.

Niewind says search warrants for phones take exponentially longer when investigators don’t have the cell’s passcode, and says because hundreds of other crimes and warrants are filed daily throughout the state, it’s already a long waiting game to get those findings back.

“Unfortunately, sometimes it just takes time,” Vallie said.

“The quickest that we’ve gotten analysis back is a couple months. The longest, we’ve had some have stretched up to six to seven months,” Trooper Travis Nelson, ND Highway Patrol’s Reconstruction Team Coordinator said.

Once completely reviewed by NDHP, the findings go to the local state’s attorney’s office for review which can also take weeks. Investigators say they understand its frustrating for victims, loved ones and the public, but say a rush to judgement is the opposite of justice served.

“We want to make sure that we’re rock solid on what we have and we’re not just guessing,” Nelson said.

“We want to be able to explain to those family members and the public why it was we believe it was this, and those kind of things, I’d like to think are worth taking the time to do it the right way,” Vallie said.

Nelson says those eight cases left to be analyzed will be reviewed in chronological order, and says his team is still finishing up a crash investigation from December 2022 before they can move on to the next file.