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Trucker on cell phone charged in fatal Minn. crash can drive, judge rules

Samuel Wayne Hicks Courtesy of Washington County Sheriff's Office

STILLWATER, Minn.—The Wisconsin truck driver accused of being on his cellphone and killing a driver on Minnesota 36 in the Twin Cities suburb of Lake Elmo on Tuesday will be allowed to drive while out on bail, a Washington County district judge ruled Friday.

Prosecutors had asked that a condition of bail for Samuel Hicks, 28, of Independence, Wis., be restriction of his driving privileges.

"That might be a hardship, but consider the hardship on the victim's family," Assistant Washington County Attorney Kevin Mueller said. "He killed someone a few days ago on our highways."

Judge John Hoffman said it would be "unreasonable" to restrict Hicks from driving if his driver's license is valid.

Hicks has been charged with criminal vehicular homicide in connection with the death of Robert Bursik, 54, of Amery, Wis., who was stopped at a red light.

Separated from the rest of the Stillwater courtroom by a shield of bulletproof glass, Hicks wore a jail-issued dark-blue shirt as he listened to Mueller describe the crash he allegedly caused.

"He was staring down at his phone without regard to anyone else on the road," Mueller said. "He felt that his cellphone was more important."

When Hicks slammed into the Toyota Scion driven by Bursik, he hit the car so hard that it was "unrecognizable to law enforcement," Mueller said.

According to the criminal complaint, Hicks was driving 63 mph, had been looking at his cellphone for eight seconds and made no effort to brake as he approached Bursik's stopped car.

Investigators cited footage from a rear- and front-facing camera in the semitrailer's cab, the complaint states.

Hicks works for a trucking company in Eau Claire, Wis., owns a house in Independence and has custody of his two young children, ages 3 and 4, his defense attorney Earl Gray said in court Friday.

Gray said Hicks has "steady employment" with the trucking company, which he did not name.

"He will not be working as a semi driver. He'll be working in the warehouse," Gray said.

Hicks did not speak during his arraignment other than to say he understood his rights and the charge filed against him.

Gray spoke briefly with reporters after his client's court appearance.

"I just was hired on the case, and I don't know much about it, except what was in the complaint," he said. "I haven't made any decisions yet. Some cases are more difficult than other cases."

When asked if Hicks was remorseful, Gray responded: "I can't comment on that. He realizes that he was charged with a crime. I'm not at liberty to discuss what we discussed because it's confidential."

Gray also would not say whether he had been hired by Hicks or by Hicks' employer.

Bursik was an Amery, Wis., businessman and biology instructor at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park. He was married with four children, according to his obituary. He was also the owner and founder of Dragonfly Gardens, a nursery and greenhouse with locations in Amery and Turtle Lake, Wis.

A post on the nursery's Facebook page Thursday said: "Honor him by doing something 'green' this year — bonus points if you include someone you love. And please, please, put down your phones while driving.

Hicks had been driving his truck since about 4:45 a.m. Tuesday, making deliveries to convenience stores. State troopers responded to the crash at 12:13 p.m.

At first, Hicks told investigators that he observed a green light from a distance and then was distracted by another vehicle, according to the complaint.

Questioned further, he said he was texting with his girlfriend and using the Zillow real estate app to look up information about a house, the complaint said.

In a criminal vehicular operation case for someone without a criminal background, state guidelines recommend a four-year prison sentence.

A warrant was issued for Hicks' arrest, and he turned himself in Thursday afternoon at the Washington County Jail in Stillwater.

Bail was set at $20,000 with the condition that Hicks not have contact with Bursik's family; bail was set at $60,000 without conditions.