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Posts from the "George Gascon" Category

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Court Applies Reckless Driving to Bikes. When Will Gascón Apply it to Cars?

A California state appeals court ruled last week that “reckless driving” can be applied to people on bicycles who kill or injure others, just as it’s applied to people driving, as the SF Chronicle reported. No one, including bicycle advocates, seems to dispute that full accountability should be brought to anyone who commit acts of traffic violence — but the reality is, drivers who maim and kill rarely ever face penalties.

DA George Gascón in a Streetfilm in 2010, when he went on a bike ride with advocates. He was the SFPD chief at the time.

There are countless such examples. One of the most egregious is the case of 29-year-old Kieran Brewer, who killed 17-year-old Hanren Chang in a crosswalk on Slot Boulevard while he drove drunk, and was sentenced to just six months in prison. Or consider Gilberto Alcantar, who will face no charges for illegally turning his truck across a bike lane and killing 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac at Sixth and Folsom Streets. SF District Attorney George Gascón claims that despite video of the crash, prosecutors can’t make an adequate case to file charges.

“Prosecution of deadly traffic crashes needs to be investigated, and prosecuted, to the fullest extent in order to reflect the severity of traffic crimes,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider. “We also need to ensure fair and equal enforcement across modes, which historically had not happened.”

As the Center for Investigative Reporting reported last year, 60 percent of the 238 motorists “found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges” between 2006 and 2011 in five Bay Area counties:

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Outer Sunset Kids Urge Drivers to Slow Down Through DA-Funded Program

Kids are out on outer Noriega Street this month urging drivers to “Keep Sunset Slow.” Photo: SNBC

“Keep Sunset Slow” — that’s the message from kids in the Outer Sunset urging drivers to slow down and save lives this month.

Elementary school students held their first event last week, part of a pedestrian safety campaign coordinated by the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center and the Outer Noriega Merchants Association. Though it’s a quiet beachside neighborhood, the Outer Sunset’s streets are notorious for their wide expanses of asphalt that encourage drivers to speed.

“Many of the youth and families in our community have to walk while commuting and it is essential that people feel safe getting around the Sunset,” said Matt Pemberton, director of SNBC, which is a member of the merchants association. The “Keep Sunset Slow” campaign, he said, is intended to “empower [youth] to be their own advocates and encourage community members to take more care while driving by following the speed limit, stopping at stop signs, and yielding to pedestrians when they are behind the wheel in the Sunset.”

“It’s wonderful to see that the merchants have taken upon their own initiative to really try to slow down the traffic in the area,” said District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang. “The area by Outer Noriega has really changed a lot over the past few years. There are now some really great businesses in the area, and it’s brought a whole lot more foot traffic.”

“That’s wonderful,” she said. “Now we need to make sure that drivers are aware and used to that, and that they really exercise caution when using the road.”

The program, planned to run through July, was funded by $3,000 from District Attorney George Gascón’s office, which issued grants from its Neighborhood Justice Fund to 11 community groups last month. The revenue comes from restitution funds collected from Neighborhood Court directives, according to the DA’s office.

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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.

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SFMTA Announces 24 Vision Zero Bike/Ped Projects for Next 24 Months

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At this morning’s Walk to Work Day press conference, SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin announced a plan to implement 24 bike and pedestrian safety projects over the next 24 months [PDF]. This is the most concrete safety plan unveiled so far, ever since city leaders pledged to pursue Vision Zero.

Nicole Schneider presented Walk SF’s “Street Score” report card for pedestrian safety in SF today, alongside Supervisor Malia Cohen (left). Photo: Aaron Bialick

The projects (listed below) include bulb-outs, traffic signal changes, road diets, turn restrictions, and even a conceptual “raised cycletrack” on upper Market Street. Half the projects are funded (one “partially”), and the SFMTA hasn’t assigned an order to them yet. Some of the projects have already been in planning, like the Second Street and Polk Street redesigns, and at some locations the “WalkFirst improvements” have yet to be designed.

Vision Zero “is something that we’re united around as a city family,” said Reiskin on the steps of City Hall, surrounded by a full roster of elected officials and department heads, minus Mayor Ed Lee.

The 24-project list wasn’t heavily discussed at the city’s second official Walk to Work Day press conference, where city leaders re-iterated the urgency of Vision Zero — the goal of ending traffic deaths within 10 years. Every member of the Board of Supervisors and other officials walked to City Hall, starting at points around the city. The furthest trekkers included Reiskin, who walked from west of Twin Peaks; Supervisor Eric Mar, from Arguello Boulevard; and Supervisor John Avalos, from the Excelsior.

Walk SF also presented a “report card” grading pedestrian safety in San Francisco:

  • Overall progress towards Vision Zero: C+
  • Walkability: A+
  • Pedestrian Safety: D+
  • Funding: D+
  • Engineering: C+
  • Enforcement: B
  • Education and Outreach: B-

“We have the fabric of a walkable city,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider. “But unfortunately, we have a relic of an older generation with our transportation system. We have streets that were designed for speed and not for safety… This isn’t something that our current administration came up with, but it’s going to take a lot of funding and a lot of work to change.”

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DA Gascón to Hire Attorney Dedicated to Vehicular Manslaughter Cases

District Attorney George Gascón has announced that he will hire an attorney devoted to handling vehicular manslaughter cases, in what could be a major step toward bringing accountability to drivers who kill.

Image: SFGovTV

“We’ve lost children, grandparents, people in the prime of their life,” Gascón said yesterday in his State of Public Safety Address, where he announced the initiative under the rubric of Vision Zero. The SF Examiner reports:

The full-time position, requested in the next budget, is necessary to ensure his office can respond “swiftly and appropriately” to such cases, Gascón said.

The district attorney reminded hundreds of public-safety leaders and advocates at the Hall of Justice auditorium that 21 pedestrians were struck and killed by motorists in The City last year, the highest number since 2007. Two months into this year, eight people have lost their lives on San Francisco roadways, which he called “unprecedented” and an incentive to implement the Vision Zero policy to eliminate pedestrian fatalities.

“I am passionate about this effort because when a case gets to my desk, it is already too late; someone has lost their life,” Gascón said. “These tragedies are completely avoidable, and a modern city like San Francisco can and should eliminate this threat.”

Modern technology has meant that advancements like computers in vehicles, security cameras and smartphones become part of vehicular manslaughter investigations. Gascón’s strategy is to have a prosecutor who understands all the forensic evidence available in the 21st century.

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Breed Defends Record on Safer Streets for Biking; Plus: Other Supes Respond

Supervisor London Breed has issued a statement explaining her Twitter comments yesterday on safer streets for bicycling which led her to delete her account. Breed had responded to an inquiry sent out by Twitter user Patrick Traughber to every city supervisor and a few other city officials, asking, “In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle to creating safer streets for bicycling in San Francisco?”

Supervisor London Breed on Bike to Work Day. Photo: SFBC/Flickr

In her initial answer, Breed cited “the bad behavior of some bicyclist,” which led several people to respond in protest. Breed tried to clarify that she’s “not blaming anyone,” and that she’s “been fighting to help make streets safer for all,” but then shut down her account minutes into the discussion. Breed has a record of making abrasive comments on Twitter, arguing with constituents and getting press attention for it.

In her written statement, Breed defended her record of standing up for street redesign projects like Masonic Avenue and Fell and Oak Streets in the face of anti-bike vitriol. Here’s what she had to say:

I suspended my account because I realized twitter can be extremely time consuming and it’s too hard to have nuanced policy discussions in 140 characters. I want to take some time to think about how I use this medium in the future.

With respect to the bike exchange, my record is clear! I have been a consistent and effective advocate for bike projects in our city. I got the Oak and Fell bike lanes implemented well ahead of schedule. I led the effort to fund the Masonic Blvd project which includes dedicated bike lanes, and I’ve voted for every bike project that’s come before the Transportation Authority, including the popular bike share program just implemented in our city.

My point was not that I think bicyclists’ behavior should be an impediment to new projects. My point was bicyclists’ behavior is the complaint I hear most often from those who oppose the projects. So as a practical matter, those behavioral concerns — whether you think they’re accurate or inaccurate, right or wrong — make it harder to get new projects moving, harder to win public and political support. But that absolutely has not, and will not, stop me from fighting to win that support.

I’ve faced a lot of fire, a LOT of fire, over the Masonic blvd project and I’ve stood strong in my support. That’s my record. So it does bother me to see Masonic supporters criticizing me over a twitter post. But it is my fault for being unclear about a complicated topic on an inappropriate medium. That is why I am taking a break from that medium.

Breed deserves a lot of credit for supporting those safety improvements. And judging by her statement, she doesn’t think that policymakers should decide whether San Franciscans get to have safer streets based on the perceived behavior of people who use a particular mode of transportation.

Traughber’s question on Twitter yielded responses from a few other supervisors and District Attorney George Gascón, offering a glimpse into those officials’ understanding of how to make streets safer (or just how willing they are to respond to tweets).

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Gascón’s “Message” Evolves, But Motorists’ Victims Still Await Justice

At the press conference held yesterday for the sentencing of Chris Bucchere, it was clear that District Attorney George Gascón’s rhetoric concerning traffic safety has evolved somewhat, toward a more accurate reflection of the dangers on city streets. In a departure from the “message to cyclists” that was his focus last month, Gascón emphasized that “traffic safety is a shared responsibility,” regardless of one’s mode of transport:

Photo: ABC 7

I know there are people in the community who don’t like to hear this, they like to blame one group or another. Some people will say, well, it’s only the motorists, if they were to behave differently, we would be safer. Other people will say, well if only the pedestrians would pay attention, we wouldn’t have these problems. And certainly, others would say, if only the cyclists were more courteous, we would not have as many accidents.

Regardless of the role you’re playing at that moment, whether you’re walking, you’re driving, or you’re cycling, if you’re violating the rules of the road, fatalities are foreseeable. And if they’re foreseeable, they are preventable.

On the last note, Gascón absolutely hit the mark. But he still didn’t acknowledge the reality that people operating multi-ton motor vehicles have a far greater capacity to inflict injury upon more vulnerable users of the road, and that the vast majority of pedestrians are injured by motorists.

The SFPD reported this week that 423 people were hit by drivers in the first five months of this year. Last year, the total was nearly 1,000. Yet, as we’ve reported, drivers are rarely prosecuted for killing pedestrians and bicycle riders as long as they’re sober and stay on the scene.

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SF Still Waiting for DA Gascón to “Send a Message” to Deadly Drivers

At the press conference yesterday to announce the plea deal between prosecutors and Chris Bucchere in the death of Sutchi Hui, SF District Attorney George Gascón said that his “goal is to send a message” to cyclists.

At a press conference yesterday, Gascón said the prosecution of Chris Bucchere for the death of Sutchi Hui should be “a message to cyclists.” Image: ABC

“Cyclists need to understand that they’re held accountable to the same standard as anybody else operating any other type of vehicle, and I believe we have achieved that in this case,” Gascón said. ”Often, bicyclists feel they are above the law.”

But with charges brought against so few of the 27 drivers who have killed pedestrians in San Francisco since the beginning of last year, it’s hard to believe motorists are being held to the same standard that Gascón applied in this case – a standard that all victims of traffic violence deserve.

Have law enforcement officials ever prosecuted a driver with the stated intent of sending a message to all people who drive? Or made broad, sweeping statements about motorists’ view of the law?

As Streetsblog has continually reported, drivers rarely face charges for killing pedestrians unless they’re intoxicated or flee the scene. The Center for Investigative Reporting buttressed that conclusion with an extensive study in April, looking at pedestrian fatalities in the Bay Area’s five largest counties between 2007 and 2011:

Sixty percent of the 238 motorists found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges during the five-year period, CIR found in its analysis of thousands of pages of police and court records from Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties.

When drivers did face criminal charges, punishment often was light. Licenses rarely were taken away. Of those charged, less than 60 percent had their driving privileges suspended or revoked for even one day, an automatic penalty in drunk driving arrests.

Forty percent of those convicted faced no more than a day in jail; 13 drivers were jailed for more than a year. By contrast, those charged in accidental shootings often serve lengthy jail terms, according to media reports.

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Taxi Driver Reza Eslaminia Wanted for Vehicular Manslaughter

SF District Attorney George Gascón put out a call today for the arrest of Ezra Eslaminia, the taxi driver who killed 39-year-old Edmund Capalla last August when he caused a car crash at Eddy and Larkin Streets.

Eslaminia's mugshot from the DA's Office.

According to the DA’s office, Eslaminia was charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter on March 29, but police have been unable to locate him.

“This case illustrates the dangers in our streets when drivers don’t obey the rules of the road,” Gascón said in a statement. “We are working with SFPD to bring this defendant to justice and we need the public’s help tracking this person down.”

From the DA’s news release:

On August 11, 2012 at around 6:52pm, Eslaminia, a taxi driver for Luxor Cab, was driving on Eddy Street approaching the Larkin Street intersection. He drove through the intersection on a red light speeding at around 35 miles per hour.  As he drove through the intersection, he drove around a bus coming down Larkin Street when his cab was struck by another vehicle on the passenger side in the rear quarter panel. The impact caused his cab to spin out of control clockwise through the intersection and striking a pedestrian in the crosswalk who was walking northbound on Larkin Street.

Eslaminia is being charged with one count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.  The District Attorney’s Office approached this as a felony case and reviewed evidence that included a video, diagrams, witness statements and a subsequent accident reconstructionist report. After a thorough review and evaluation of the case, prosecutors found there was insufficient evidence to meet the burden of proof necessary to show a pattern of gross negligence, which would warrant a felony.

As the Bay Citizen reported in August, Capalla was the father of three young children, and was celebrating his youngest daughter’s birthday on the day he was killed:

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Is SFPD Serious About Cracking Down on Distracted Driving?

SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali (right) and SF District Attorney George Gascón. Photo: Aaron Bialick

SF District Attorney George Gascón and SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali held a press conference last Thursday to bring attention to distracted driving, since April is officially National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

It’s promising to see law enforcement officials bring attention to this deadly and growing problem on San Francisco streets. What remains to be seen, however, is whether drivers who kill and maim others are being held accountable with thorough police crash investigations and prosecuted by the DA’s office when they’re at fault.

While SF stats on traffic crashes attributed to distracted driving aren’t available, the CA Highway Patrol says that nationally, it was a factor in 3,331 deaths and over 400,000 injuries in 2011. The Centers for Disease Control released a study last month finding that 68.7 percent of U.S. adult drivers (aged 18–64) admitted in surveys to talking on their cell phones while driving at least once in the past 30 days – far more than those in European countries. In the United Kingdom, only 20.5 percent said they had done so.

Gascón explained that data from the SF Municipal Transportation Agency shows that 60 percent of pedestrian injures in San Francisco take place in crosswalks, compared to 45 percent statewide, and 44 percent in New York City.

“Clearly, here, we’re having a much bigger problem. It’s a problem that’s impacting many lives,” said Gascón. “We’re having not only around 20 pedestrians that are being killed every year on our streets, we have well in excess of 700 pedestrians that are injured every year.” (The Department of Public Health puts the number of injuries closer to 900.)

“We need to work together to make sure we reduce the mayhem that is going on on our streets,” added Gascón.

Commander Ali said SFPD officers have beefed up enforcement against distracted driving throughout April, but that stats on violations and ticketing won’t be available until the end of the month.

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe applauded Gascón and the SFPD “for cracking down on people that are endangering others by driving distracted.” Still, she said, “It’s hard to know if everyone’s been held to account for endangering, and in many cases, killing people walking.”

So far this year, seven pedestrians have been killed in San Francisco, and at least three of the drivers in those have been charged because they were either drunk or fleeing police. But in cases in which drivers were sober and stayed on the scene, like the crashes that killed Becky Lee, Tania Madfes, and Melissa Kitson, causes remain less clear, and there’s no word on whether those drivers face charges.

Streetsblog has a request in with the DA’s office for how many of this year’s pedestrian crash cases have been forwarded from the SFPD to the DA, but has yet to hear back. As we’ve reported, drivers rarely face charges for injuring pedestrians unless the victim dies and the driver was intoxicated or fled the scene.

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