This is a recent news story, so all the facts are not know yet, but Wilmot Collins — the mayor of Helena, Montana — has been charged with careless driving and leaving the scene of an accident.
Collins said he will plead guilty to careless driving but not leaving the scene. This would all be a minor incident of interest only in Helena were in not for the fact that Collins is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination to oppose U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in November 2020.
Collins has been celebrated nationwide for becoming the first black mayor in Montana, all the more notable because he came to the state in the 1990s as a youthful refugee from Liberia. Whether Collins could have turned that celebrity into a victory over Daines is dubious, but this recent incident will probably encourage other Democrats to take a new look at the race.
The circumstances do not look good for Collins. As reported by the Helena Independent Record:
Kimberly Doherty, a 35-year-old Butte woman, reported a hit-and-run crash around 6:42 p.m. Monday. Doherty told Helena police she was driving southbound on Last Chance Gulch before stopping to turn left onto Lyndale Avenue, when she was struck from behind by a vehicle driven by Collins.
Doherty told police she pulled over as Collins continued west on Lyndale. She later told the Independent Record she followed him while honking her horn, and they both pulled into the Van’s Thriftway parking lot in the 300 block of Euclid Avenue.
Collins provided his business card to Doherty and then left, police reported. Doherty told the Independent Record she waited in the Van’s parking lot for around an hour before Helena police officers arrived to take her statement.
Collins disputes this account and says that he actually left the parking lot after Doherty drove off. That raises the question of why Doherty drove off if she was waiting for the police to arrive.
Here is the mayor’s account in full:
“On the evening of May 20th made a mistake. I was at the stop light at Euclid and Last Chance, when I accidentally nudged the back of a car that was stopped in front of me. The contact was so light that I did not realize I had made contact with the other vehicle The light turned green and I drove on with the traffic. As I was driving down the road, the driver of the vehicle I had bumped followed me and honked at me to pull over. We pulled over at the Vann’s parking lot. The driver showed me where my vehicle had caused very minor damage to her rear bumper. There was no damage to my car. The driver did not seem to be injured or hurt in any way.
The driver said she recognized me and knew who I was. I gave her my card and told her I would pay for any damage to the vehicle at any repair shop of her choice. We shook hands, and she seemed satisfied with my offer. I sat in my car at the Vann’s parking lot as I watched her drive off. I then called my wife at the VA to tell her what had happened and drove home. I followed up with the woman whose car I damaged the next day to see if she had gotten a chance to assess the damage or book an appointment to repair her vehicle and she had not yet had a chance to book an appointment.”
On the afternoon of the 23rd, I was presented with two citations that arose from this incident. The first one was careless driving and the other was for leaving the scene of the accident. I plan to plead guilty to careless driving on Tuesday, and not-guilty to leaving the scene of the accident because I did not leave until after the other driver left.”
Mayor Collins seems to have two problems. First of all is the problem of credibility. We will have to wait and see how much damage was done to Doherty’s vehicle. If the damage is more than $500 you are required to call police. Doherty apparently thought there was enough damage to do so. If she was right then it is hard to see how Collins could have thought the vehicles never even touched.
The second problem is that Doherty and Collins are telling diametrically opposed stories about who left the scene of the accident first. It makes no sense that Doherty called police to report the accident but then left the parking lot only to come back later to meet the police. It is certainly possible, but would be very peculiar. We can hope that video surveillance of the parking lot can verify one of the stories. The time the report was filed with police may also be relevant.
Collins will have a tough time fighting the charge of leaving the scene of the accident. To do so, he needs to question the truthfulness of the woman whose car he hit. This seems to violate the liberal code and would amount to “man-splaining.”
It’s possible there were witnesses in the parking lot who may be able to verify one story or the other as well.We will have to wait and see.
Some people are already comparing this case to the arrest of Greg Gianforte for assaulting a reporter on the eve of his election to the US House in 2017, and saying that Collins gets a pass because Gianforte was elected despite his arrest. Two things about that. First, let’s see what level of scrutiny by the national media that Collins gets. So far I have not seen any, while Gianforte’s case was top of the news hour for weeks. Secondly, despite the scrutiny, Gianforte was elected twice. Collins will have the chance to see what voters think if he stays in the race, but there is no justification for saying Collins doesn’t have to explain himself.
In a real sense, this is more of a test of the media for fairness than a test of Collins, but both are on trial.
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