Judge rejects charge against Georgia lawmaker in hit-and-run

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FILE -- Rep. Trey Kelley, R - Cedartown, speaks to the Georgia House on Thursday, March 29, 2018. A judge on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021 dismissed a criminal charge of reckless conduct against Kelley, finding the lawmaker could not have committed a crime by not calling 911 in 2019 after a fatal hit-and-run accident. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — A judge dismissed a charge Tuesday against a Georgia state lawmaker, saying his failure to call 911 when a friend called him about a fatal wreck is not a crime.

Polk County Superior Court Senior Judge Stephen Schuster ruled Rep. Trey Kelley could not be charged with reckless conduct because prosecutors did not claim the Cedartown Republican had committed an underlying crime.

“No reading of either the hit and run statute or the reckless conduct statute leaves a reasonable person with the impression that a disinterested third party, not present for an automobile accident, who later learns of the purported accident is under a legal duty pursuant to the reckless conduct statute to immediately contact 911,” Schuster wrote.

Ralph “Ryan” Dover III hit Eric Keais on Sept. 13, 2019 ,in Cedartown with his SUV. Instead of calling 911, he called his friend, Kelley, officials have said. Kelley in turn called Cedartown Police Chief Jamie Newsome at home, according to authorities. An officer was sent to the area, unaware someone may have been injured, and eventually found Keais lying in a ditch, gravely wounded. Keais died from his injuries soon afterward.

Kelley, who represents all of Polk and parts of Floyd and Haralson counties, was indicted last year on a charge of reckless conduct, alleging he wrongly did not report the crash. Dover was indicted on charges of felony hit-and-run and reckless conduct.

Schuster said prosecutors were impermissibly stretching the law to create a “judicially crafted crime” by combining some elements of the hit-and-run law, even though Kelley was not charged with that offense, with the reckless conduct law.

“The hit and run statute does not apply to Kelley because he was not the driver of the vehicle involved in the accident, in the vehicle or at the scene at the time of the accident," Schuster wrote. "The law imposes no duty upon Kelley to contact law enforcement.”

The charges against Dover still stand. There's also a federal lawsuit filed by Eric Keais' father, Manfred Keais, seeking money damages from Dover, Kelley, Newsome and the city of Cedartown. The defendants deny wrongdoing and are currently trying to get the case dismissed.

Kelley's lawyer, Lester Tate, said in a statement that the ruling is “long-awaited vindication of the fact that Trey Kelley did nothing wrong.”

“We would first, again, offer our condolences and prayers to the family and friends of Eric Keais who tragically lost his life in September of 2019,” Tate said. “But we have always said and always believed that Rep. Kelley broke no law that night. He was not in the car when Mr. Keais was involved in the accident and did not know what had been hit when he arrived at the scene.”

Kelley this year stepped down from his post as House majority whip after he was indicted and his wife filed for divorce.

A lawyer for Manfred Keais did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.

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