In SF, Victims of Traffic Violence Don’t Have Equal Protection

A pedestrian injured by two drivers at 19th and Valencia Streets last month, one of the more than 800 hit every year in San Francisco -- the vast majority by drivers. Photo: Mission Local

SF District Attorney George Gascón is set to bring felony vehicular manslaughter charges against Chris Bucchere later today for biking into 71-year-old Sutchi Hui in a crosswalk at Castro and Market Streets, killing him. Any traffic death on our streets deserves a thorough investigation with appropriate charges filed against the responsible party. But this high-profile case raises the question of why so few other perpetrators of traffic violence face similar repercussions.

So far, six other pedestrians are known to have been killed in San Francisco this year. SFPD and the DA have not drawn nearly the same level of public scrutiny to those cases as they have to the Bucchere/Hui case. The media, meanwhile, is captivated. The most visible difference setting Bucchere’s case apart, of course, is that he was riding a bike when he killed Hui, while the people who killed the six other victims were driving motor vehicles.

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr (right) and SF District Attorney George Gascón. Photo: ABC News

All pedestrians who are injured on SF streets (876 in 2011) and the survivors of those who are killed (17 victims last year) deserve thorough investigations and appropriate actions from law enforcement agencies to deter dangerous behavior, regardless of the mode of travel of the perpetrator. But the DA and SFPD don’t display the same zeal for prosecuting drivers who kill (save those who are drunk or flee the scene) as they have for Bucchere.

Gascón and the SFPD have improved their record in recent months by charging a few such drivers in 2011 cases — but with misdemeanors, not felonies. Spokesperson Stephanie Ong Stillman argues that the DA’s office has given fair attention to cases that the SFPD has brought before it.

However, the SFPD apparently doesn’t treat all traffic fatalities equally, even in cases where police investigators determine the driver to be at fault. So far, there has been no action against the drivers responsible for the deaths of 47-year-old Sena Putra and 22-year-old Robert Yegge — both of whom were killed within the last month by truck drivers whom the SFPD says failed to yield. The evidence that the drivers who killed Putra and Yegge violated the law seems comparable, if not stronger, than the evidence in the Bucchere case, yet there is no word that the department will seek charges. (Streetsblog has requested a list of pedestrian fatalities presented by the SFPD to the DA’s office for investigation this year. DA staff said it is compiling the list, but we have not received it as we go to press.)

To build a legally defensible case against Bucchere, prosecutors went to great lengths to gather evidence, as is appropriate for any traffic death. They collected GPS data and surveillance footage, and spent weeks tracking down witnesses to make the case that Bucchere’s illegal behavior caused the crash (he apparently entered the intersection on a yellow light, which isn’t illegal). Sources said the DA ran into hurdles in building the case, which led to a delay in Gascón’s announcement of the widely-anticipated charges. According to a statement from the DA’s office, Gascón will try to prove recklessness by focusing on Bucchere’s pattern of behavior leading up to the crash, during which he allegedly sped and ran stop signs — a case which the SF Bay Guardian said rests on questionable grounds.

Soon after the crash that killed Hui, Gascón indicated that he was “definitely” going to press charges against Bucchere by proving “reckless negligence.” When Gascón announced the charges, his office put out a statement saying “we can do better as a city to avoid these tragic consequences,” and that ”everyone has to follow the rules of the road.” And sensitive information on the investigation, like the results from GPS data from Bucchere’s speed tracker, was leaked to media outlets by the SFPD. The DA denied leaking that background on the investigation and says its policy is not to share such information until charges are announced.

The story has reached media outlets across the country, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, which have sensationalized the incident by tying it to broader issues of bike lanes and general conflicts between street users.

Meanwhile, the six other pedestrian fatalities in 2012, and most of those before them, have not elicited the same response from the media, the SFPD, or the DA’s office. The same week Hui was injured, a woman was also hospitalized by a driver at the same intersection, yet the case was virtually ignored by the media. No statement was issued by the DA about the necessity of avoiding traffic crashes and following the rules of the road.

The pattern in such cases is that drivers typically face no legal consequences unless they were drunk or fled the scene. In another case in February, surveillance footage and witness accounts clearly showed an impatient shuttle driver seriously injuring a man with a cane who had the right of way in a crosswalk. Yet the SFPD only issued the driver a traffic citation after an outcry from pedestrian advocates. At the time, the DA’s office claimed it could not file charges in a pedestrian crash unless the victim dies or the driver displayed “willful and wanton disregard for the safety of other people.” This crash apparently did not meet the standard. There were no charges.

Making San Francisco’s streets safer means seeking justice in all cases of traffic violence – not just the ones that are most sensational to the public.