Legal System Fails Again: No Charges for Trucker Who Killed Amelie

Amelie Le Moullac. Photo: amelielemoullac.com

Note: Amelie Le Moullac’s mother, Jessie Jewitt, and other Bay Area musicians will perform at a benefit concert on Friday in Palo Alto at 7:30 p.m. Proceeds will go to Amélie’s Angels, “a fund dedicated to bringing the gifts of education, food, clothing, toys, and most importantly love and laughter, to the children of Haiti.”

The truck driver who hit and killed Amelie Le Moullac on her bike at Folsom and Sixth Streets last August will face no charges from District Attorney George Gascón, despite surveillance video showing the driver at fault in the incident.

Gilberto Alcantar, the truck driver, is shown making an unsafe right turn in the bike lane in the video found by an SF Bicycle Coalition staffer. SFPD investigators initially claimed they could find no such video, and blamed Le Moullac for her own death. SFPD Chief Greg Suhr later apologized for the botched investigation, as well as the behavior of the sergeant who purposefully blocked a bike lane at a rally for safer streets in her honor. Suhr declared that the video evidence showed the fault was mainly with the driver, but DA Gascón says prosecutors can’t make an adequate case to file charges.

The news was broken yesterday by KQED’s Bryan Goebel, founding editor of Streetsblog SF:

After watching the video, investigators concluded Alcantar was to blame for making an unsafe turn into the bike lane, killing the young public relations professional. Despite that key piece of evidence, prosecutors ultimately felt it wasn’t enough to convince a jury.

“Unfortunately, with the evidence presented, we are unable to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Alex Bastian, a spokesman for San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.

Micah Liberty, an attorney for the Le Moullac family, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Alcantar and Milipitas-based distributor Daylight Foods. She said the family was disappointed and heartbroken that charges aren’t being filed, and that Alcantar wasn’t issued a ticket.

“After reviewing the evidence that we have, looking at the video of the incident, it’s really hard for this grieving family to understand how a driver can do what he did without receiving even a slap on the wrist for a minor violation of the vehicle code,” Liberty said.

“There is no issue about what happened. The video is clear, from what I understand — he made an unlawful turn across the bike lane,” said Shaana Rahman, an attorney who represents pedestrian and bicyclist victims in civil court. “It’s not all the time that you get such a clear piece of evidence in cases, either civil or criminal. There aren’t videos for every bike accident that happens — and here we have one.”

As frustrating as the lack of charges in this case may be, it’s par for the course when it comes to holding drivers accountable for killing people biking and walking. As the Center for Investigative Reporting found last year, 60 percent of the 238 drivers who killed pedestrians in the Bay Area between 2007 and 2011 were found to be at fault or suspected of a crime but faced no criminal charges, and those who did usually only faced a slap on the wrist. Drivers tend not to be charged unless they were drunk or fled the scene.

Even drunk drivers can get off easy. Kieran Brewer, who was intoxicated when he ran over 17-year-old Hanren Chan in a crosswalk on Sloat Boulevard, was sentenced to just six months in jail last month.

DA Gascón says he’s increasing efforts to prosecute traffic violence, and plans to hire a dedicated vehicular manslaughter unit of prosecutors to specialize in such cases, and it’s expected to be funded in the city budget this year. But his office claims that in Le Moullac’s case, there isn’t evidence to justify criminal negligence on the driver’s part — even with the video.

Yet Gascón did manage to prosecute the only two bicycle riders in SF history known to have killed pedestrians, and said those charges should “send a message” that “cyclists need to understand that they’re held accountable to the same standard as anybody else operating any other type of vehicle.”

It’s clear, however, that the “standard” for holding deadly drivers accountable remains high, and that the failure to bring charges in cases like Le Moullac’s lies with both the DA and the SFPD investigators who submit cases to his office.

Rahman says there’s room for improvement each step of the way, but that she can especially attest to a regular pattern of inadequate SFPD investigations in bike and pedestrian crashes. In Le Moullac’s case, she said, “The way the video came to light was problematic. They didn’t do any canvass, didn’t do any investigation, which is per usual. The cops failed to do their jobs to secure evidence.”

In January, Chief Suhr announced reforms to improve police investigations in pedestrian and bicycle crashes, including allowing officers to cite the party found at fault on the scene. In regards to the investigation of Le Moullac’s case, he said, “We’re better than that.”

When Suhr was asked on Bike to Work Day last week about the strong perception of SFPD bias against bicycle riders, he told Goebel and me that “the numbers don’t bear it out” because most traffic tickets go to drivers. When Goebel pressed him specifically about officers’ treatment of bicycle riders in crashes, he said the SFPD recently added “complaint of pain” to its investigation forms, and said “we need the bicyclists, when they’re not fine, to say they’re not fine.”

Then there’s the matter of the DA. On the relatively rare occasions when the SFPD submits cases to the District Attorney for investigation, does the DA make every effort to prosecute lethal recklessness?

Gascón says yes, and told KQED, “If the driver was the one at fault and there is a death, then we have a prosecutable case and we look at the evidence and whether we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”

That claim is still a bit hard to swallow when looking at comparable cases. In prosecuting racing cyclist Chris Bucchere for killing 71-year-old Sutchi Hui at Market and Castro Streets, the DA’s investigators went to great lengths to gather evidence, as they should for any traffic death. They collected GPS data and surveillance footage, and spent weeks tracking down witnesses to make the case that Bucchere was reckless because he was speeding and running stop signs leading up to the crash.

In Cleveland in 2009, 22-year-old Sylvia Bingham, originally of San Rafael, was killed in a strikingly similar case to Le Moullac’s — a truck driver ran her over while making a right turn. The driver, Herschel Roberts, was sentenced to three years in prison and lost his driver’s license for life. The judge in that case said Roberts had likely passed Bingham on her bike seconds earlier and had a duty to look in the truck’s mirrors before turning right.

Meanwhile, in another San Francisco crash where video evidence was available, a DA spokesperson said prosecutors couldn’t charge a driver who ran over a man walking with a cane in a crosswalk because the victim didn’t die.

All told, Le Moullac’s story seems to show that it’s fine for a driver to run over and kill a woman on her bike — even when the deadly violation is caught on tape — as long as the driver wasn’t shown to be driving in a brazenly reckless manner moments beforehand. Deadly negligence by a professional driver is still okay in the eyes of the law here in San Francisco.

Gascón has yet to uphold his claim that he holds drivers to the same standard he held Bucchere to. “You’re going to have to be consistent,” said Rahman. “It’s a little bit unclear what the standard is going to be going forward.”

  • emceeski

    “cyclists need to understand that they’re held accountable to the same
    standard as anybody else operating any other type of vehicle.”

    …what a joke.

  • San Francisco is hilarious..

    ..ly scary!

  • We desperately need the Idaho Stop Law and to legally go after all the reckless drivers!

  • voltairesmistress

    A question for attorneys: Is it legally possible for the LeMoullac family or a public interest group to sue the City of San Francisco and the District Attorney for non-enforcement and failure to prosecute traffic crimes? Mayor Lee and DA Gascon are choosing not to protect us. This should not be a policy option. I don’t know how else we are to change their negligence, because elections involve dozens of issues and do not translate into clear messages to elected officials.

  • saimin

    Did the DA give up because they are not confident in the physical evidence? Or are did they give up because the police botched the investigation from the beginning?

  • This is all truly sad. However, there is some momentum, however modest, around “vulnerable user” laws in California, which would enable greater penalties when pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. are killed or severely injured, even if the evidence for other violations isn’t clear. In the current legislative session, AB 2398 (Levine) would establish/raise such fines, and this legislation has been supported by PSAC (which I’m on) and the SFMTA, and subsequently endorsed the SF State Legislation Committee. AB 2398 isn’t particularly progressive when compared with Oregon’s vulnerable user laws, but it is a worthwhile first step.

  • gary

    Another beautiful young life taken by someone who should never have gotten a license in the first place.
    It looks like people will continue to be killed by drivers with no end in sight unless there’s a re-write of the joke they now call laws and until they bounce those jokes sitting in cityhall down the front steps on there hind ends.

  • Mark Friis

    Almost seems time for the largest critical mass ever in SF. This is out of hand.

  • At long last, DA Gascon, have you no sense of decency?

  • NoeValleyJim

    George Gascon is a politician first and foremost. He made a tactical decision that pissing off the bicycling community is less important than currying favor with motorists. This has nothing to do with justice or evidence.

    We need to show him that he is mistaken and that we are a political force to be reckoned with. I am tired of being treated as a second class citizen.

  • p_chazz

    They could sue the police, but I doubt the court would find in their favor. In a 2005 Supreme Court decision called Castle Rock v. Gonzales the court ruled that the police do not have a constitutional duty to protect someone.

  • bobster1985

    Even if it would be difficult to get a conviction, charges should have been filed against the truck driver and have a jury decide. A trial may have convinced a few more drivers to be more careful. That alone would have made it worthwhile to pursue.

  • Nathanael

    The problem is the DA more than the police.

    I’m not sure anyone’s tried suing a DA for dereliction of duty, or whatever the appropriate legal remedy would be. Might try to get a mandamus order forcing the DA to prosecute. Could sue for discrimination based on selective enforcement. There’s a number of legal theories you could try to nail the DA, and I don’t know whether any of them have been tried.

    If you could get the attention of a GRAND JURY, perhaps with publicity in the newspapers, you could bypass the DA and prosecute directly. DAs have made this difficult by suborning grand juries.

    Alternatively, if the DA is elected, throw the bum out at the next election. It shouldn’t be too hard to run a “GASCON LETS RECKLESS KILLERS GO SCOT-FREE” campaign to destroy his career.

  • Nathanael

    For some reason my more polite comments tend to end up in moderation, probably due to a bad auto-moderation system. Anyway, the problem is the DA more than the police. There are a number of legal tactics which can be taken to deal with a bad deal, many of which are completely untested as far as I know; the best-tested is throwing him out of office in an election. I think the campaign would write itself. Only works for directly-elected DAs though.

  • Kevin J

    So first the SFPD the covers up a murder by trying to throw blame on the victim to protect a homocidal maniac.

    Now we just need the DA to press charges against the SF Bike Coalition members who discovered the SFPD had sided with the killer to hide the truth.

  • From Gascon’s speech in front of City Hall on Bike to Work day, I surmise that he views the greatest threat to public safety to be bicyclists rolling through stop signs. At least, that was the only thing he could bring himself to talk about. His cavalier attitude about traffic crime makes him unsuited to be the District Attorney of a major city in my opinion.

    He was the only politico speechifying who had not ridden a bike that morning. (Even the fire chief rode a bike from her office to city hall.) He did say he enjoyed riding a bike for recreation. However, riding a bike for recreation gives you as much understanding of what it’s like to ride a bike for transportation in San Francisco as jumping on a bed tells you what it’s like to jump on the moon.

  • murphstahoe

    When is he re-upped? I have plenty of distaste for Ed Lee but George Gascon is public enemy #1

  • He’s up for election again in 2015, same as Ed Lee.

  • gneiss

    What is particularly telling to me is how aggressive prosecution of the two pedestrian deaths by bicycle riders were compared to the deaths at the hands of motor vehicles. While it’s easy to provide criminal negligence when killing someone while riding a bike, it’s much harder to do so when the vehicle is a car. Our culture and media has so effectively painted people who ride bikes as reckless lawbreakers who are taking their own hands when they ride on city streets (despite the lack of any evidence) that the DA’s office knew they faced an uphill battle trying to prove manslaughter.

    However, without more effective protections from the legal system, bicycle commuting will remain a fringe activity. So long as motorists can bully, intimidate, injure, and kill people we can’t have any meaningful discussion about increasing transportation mode share as most people won’t want to risk their lives on city streets just trying to get to work. If the city leadership is at all serious about getting the ‘interested but concerned’ demographic to start riding bicycles, they’ll need to look at taking more of these cases to court.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Love your most recent blog entry Karen, you really nailed how important it is for us to start thinking about what a post-oil era is going to look like.

  • Not a Critical Mass, but the Ride of Silence next Wednesday in SOMA could be a way to (silently) protest the DA’s decision.

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  • voltairesmistress

    Yes, I will be there. Please, everyone who rides, please show up Wednesday, 5/21 at Sports Basement, 1590 Bryant St, by 6 pm for the Ride of Silence. Refreshments start at 5, but ride starts at 6, for about 1.5 hours total.

  • the_greasybear

    Let us pray:

    Beloved are the crimes of the San Francisco motorist, and beloved is the system that unfailingly shields killer motorists from paying any consequence for their deadly decisions.

    Damned are the harmless bicyclists rolling stop signs in empty intersections, for they are ungodly–they are not inside a car

    Holy, holy, holy SFPD and DA Garcon–your eternal injustice serves to preserve the deadliness of our streets, forever and ever, Amen!

  • NoeValleyJim

    Prosecutors have a very extensive shield against civil suits, even in civil rights cases:

    http://scholarship.law.marquette.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2159&context=mulr

    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/judicial/2010-10-05-federal-prosecutor-immunity_N.htm?csp=usat.me

    Grand juries can indict people but mostly (always?) work at the direction of prosecutors. Another jurisdiction (federal or state) could possibly decide to prosecute, though it seems unlikely.

  • voltairesmistress

    Thank you for the links. From the Marquette Law Review it appears the courts have decided to shield prosecutors who prosecute persons later deemed innocent. But that ruling does not seem to apply to prosecutors like Gascon who refuse to prosecute clear crimes, simply because he suspects juries are biased in favor of motorists.

  • Jessie Jewitt

    Let my beautiful daughter not be forgotten on this anniversary of her death. Please communicate to readers to find justice for Amelie in loving the children of Haiti:

    http://amelielemoullac.com/amelies-angels/donating-amelies-angels/

    “Have a great day!” – Amelie

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