No felony charges will be filed against the high-profile attorney who ran over and killed a runner in St. Paul nearly a year ago, the Hennepin County attorney’s office announced Wednesday, putting aside suspicions that he was on his phone or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Motorist Peter Berge struck 35-year-old Scott Spoo late in the afternoon on Feb. 22, 2017, after drifting into the wrong lane several times on Mississippi River Boulevard at Dayton Avenue.
About a week after hitting Spoo in the crosswalk, Berge was found to have an aggressive form of brain cancer, according to a close friend. Berge had told police that “his condition was the cause of his impaired behavior,” one court filing in his case read.
In ruling against charging Berge, 61, of St. Paul, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the attorney had no drugs or alcohol in his system, as police suspected, when he hit Spoo at 4:39 p.m. Freeman added that Berge had not been on his phone since 4:26 p.m.
The time of impact determined by the county attorney’s office not only means Berge was not on his phone at the time, it also contradicts what St. Paul police said in a court filing in April. Police had said Spoo was hit at 4:22 p.m., when the driver’s phone was being actively used.
County attorney spokesman Chuck Laszewski explained that the time of the crash noted in the search warrant affidavit “was the result of a typo on one [police] report. All of the other official reports, including from dispatch, stated that the accident happened at 4:39.”
Freeman said in his statement that “had Mr. Berge been drinking or if he had fled the scene, we could have charged him with criminal vehicular homicide. That was not the case. There was no evidence of gross negligence, either.”
According to police, Berge had been involved in a separate fender-bender minutes before he struck Spoo.
While free from any felony charges, Berge might still be charged with some level of misdemeanor. Police spokesman Steve Linders said “the case will be presented to the city attorney’s office for charging consideration.”
A message was left with that office to see whether it would take on the case.
Speaking on behalf of his client, attorney Charles Hawkins described Berge’s reaction when he told him about the county attorney’s decision. “One word, relief,” Hawkins said.
“We are appreciative of the county attorney’s evaluation of the case and [his] willingness to have a little input from us” about Berge’s medical difficulties, Hawkins added.
Robert Hopper, another attorney for Berge and an instructor of the relationship of neuroscience to the law at the University of Minnesota, said he presented to the county attorney’s office how Berge’s glioblastoma multiforme played a role in the crash.
The affliction “caused a narrowing of his field of vision,” Hopper said, “and he could not see the runner until the runner had run out in front of him.”
Laszewski acknowledged that Berge’s “medical condition would have made it very difficult for us to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the death was caused by his gross negligence.”
At the time of the crash, Berge was the ethics chairman for the Hennepin County Bar Association. He also was web director for Minnesota Continuing Legal Education, a nonprofit established by the Minnesota State Bar Association that develops various educational services for lawyers. He left that job weeks before the crash.
The case was moved to Hennepin County because Berge has been a supporter and contributor to Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s campaign committee.
Avid runner, cyclist
Spoo, of St. Paul, was valedictorian at New Richmond (Wis.) High School, Class of 2000. He attended West Point Military Academy before transferring to and graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He received his master’s from the University of Minnesota and worked for 3M in the Twin Cities for 11 years and as an engineer.
He also was an avid runner and bicyclist who “worked to bring more awareness to bicycle safety for both bicyclists and motorists,” his online obituary read.
Spoo’s mother, Ruth Spoo, said she has no feelings one way or another about the driver avoiding felony charges.
“I really hadn’t been thinking about that,” she said. “Everything was just going on and on and on.”
Going forward, she added, “I prefer to focus on his friends and things they did for him.”
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482