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: ##http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2013/07/23/phil-matier-bicyclists-unique-plea-deal-in-deadly-castro-crash/##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.

Holding deadly drivers accountable doesn’t fall completely on Gascón’s shoulders — SFPD deserves a big share of the blame as well. But law enforcement has certainly failed to consistently seek justice for the victims of traffic violence and their families. When asked whether drivers will be charged in specific cases of pedestrian injuries and fatalities, the DA’s office often says it can only investigate cases that are submitted to them by the SFPD.

Gascón’s attitude toward traffic violence may have evolved over the past year. While he erroneously blamed pedestrian victims in a statement last June, he told the CIR this April that “reckless driving is just as bad as people using a firearm recklessly.”

“If we had 700 people being shot every year, we would be jumping up and down,” said Gascón, citing a lowball estimate of the number of pedestrians injured in SF every year. (According to SFPD data, about 1,000 pedestrians were injured in 2012.)

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe said Gascón’s record of charging drivers is actually stronger than that of most district attorneys.

“This is an unusual case and so has received a lot of attention,” she said. “Of course, many more pedestrians are hit by cars than by bikes in San Francisco, and are hit more seriously. We hope this precedent is one that DA Gascón intends to continue to act on, in the cases of all the people killed by cars in San Francisco, from Sena Putra last year to Tania Madfes.”

Stampe was referring to two victims recently killed by drivers. Both drivers appeared to be at fault, but have faced no charges. Madfes, a 68-year-old retired teacher, died after she and her husband were hit in a crosswalk on West Portal Avenue in March. “I looked up as we hit the ground, and the walk sign was green,” her husband, David Madfes, told the SF Chronicle after the crash. The SFPD forwarded the case to the DA’s office for investigation, according to the Chronicle.

On May 13, 2012, just over a month after Hui died, 47-year-old Sena Putra was killed by the driver of a gasoline tanker at Mission and 13th Streets in a crosswalk. The next month, Robert Yegge, a student at University of San Francisco, was killed on his bike by a truck driver who failed to yield at Oak and Franklin Streets.

Gascón’s office has not responded to a request for comment and updates on those cases today.

In the cases of both Putra and Yegge, SFPD determined that the driver had failed to yield. It’s still unclear why the DA hasn’t brought charges of felony vehicular manslaughter against those drivers, as he did against Bucchere. When Streetsblog asked Gascón about the deaths of Putra and Yegge last June, he said he hadn’t heard of them, and it’s unknown if the police ever submitted the case to his office for investigation.

At the time, Gascón’s response as to why so few charges were brought against drivers who kill pedestrians was that most pedestrians were at fault for their own deaths. As we reported, that victim-blaming assertion was not only wrong, it also just doesn’t apply to the cases like Putra’s and Yegge’s, who weren’t found at fault.

That mentality still seems to persist, however, among top law enforcement officials. When addressing matters of pedestrian safety, SFPD Chief Greg Suhr has consistently focused on “distracted walking,” despite the complete lack of data to support the notion that it’s an actual cause of pedestrian deaths.

Bringing justice to all victims of traffic violence starts with transforming the entrenched car-centric culture that turns a blind eye to deadly driving behavior. Until that changes, law enforcement is sending a clear message to motorists: Killing someone with a car is just fine, as long as you’re sober and stay at the scene.

  • Anonymous

    My opinion: driving comes with a serious responsibility and if you kill someone, unless you can PROVE he was at fault, you lose your license for at least a year. Then we start talking about criminal liability. However, in this case the pedestrian was documented on video to be in violation of the law and therefore at fault, and while the cyclist was speeding (by the posted speed limit, but likely not by the prevailing traffic speed as would be recorded by a traffic survey) he otherwise entered the intersection legally (on yellow). There is no way a driver would be charged in this situation, no way. He might not even have been ticketed. I don’t defend Chris’s riding here, but the whole way this case has been treated reeks.

  • Neil

    If you cannot see the distinction between a pedestrian and a vehicle then I am not sure that I can save you.

  • Neil

    gneiss, can you inform us when was the last time a pedestrian was prosecuted for a traffic offense apart from, say, jaywalking?

  • Anonymous

    If you are willing to accept lack of prosecution of the thousands of people who die every year from automobile crashes as simply “accidents” and accept those 41,000 deaths as an unfortunate part of an otherwise great status quo then we have nothing left to discuss.

  • Neil

    So, cool, what do you think the “consequences” should be if i am driving along perfectly safely and someone runs out in front of me, and dies as a result?

  • Anonymous

    That jury might well consider whether doing 35-45 mph

    Again with the hyperbolic non-facts.

    “clearly he believes that a jury might decide that if he is trying to cop a plea”

    How exactly would he expect an impartial jury with the amount of FUD being thrown around?

  • Neil

    You missed the point. What leverage does the victim of an accident have if the perpertrator of that accident carries no insurance?

    That’s the difference between being hit by a driver (who at least is required to carry insurance) and a rogue cyclist who, chances are, carries no such liability.

    A driver who is at fault ends up paying a higher insurance premium. A cyclist who does the exact same thing walks away free and clear,

  • Ryan Brady

    Fun fact. Strava recorded me going 70+ mph one of my rides in Marin. i know for a fact I wasn’t going any faster than 35.

  • mikesonn

    “a driver (who at least is required to carry insurance) and a rogue cyclist who, chances are, carries no such liability.”

    I’d say the % of drivers who don’t carry insurance is equal to (or damn near close) to the % of cyclists who don’t have any insurance.

  • Ryan Brady

    The cyclist who does the exact thing generally ends up in a hospital. I would argue motorists have less of an incentive to be careful because their lives are in much less danger.

  • Anonymous

    That’s the difference between being hit by a driver (who at least is
    required to carry insurance) and a rogue cyclist who, chances are,
    carries no such liability.

    this sums it up. Cyclists are “rogues” who, chances are, carry no insurance. Drivers are merely “drivers”.

    I wonder why it is then that insurance policies in California require you to carry coverage for “uninsured motorist”. Why on earth would I possibly need that given that those drivers, who are clearly not rogues, all carry insurance?

    There are more non-insured drivers out there than there are non-insured cyclists, sir.

  • Anonymous

    If you’re driving in SF you should be going 25 mph or less and be able to stop in time to avoid killing them. It’s almost impossible, if you were driving “perfectly safely” to kill someone, and it rarely happens that someone leaps in front of a car.

    So, “neil,” what do you think the consequences should be if I am driving a car and, while turning, fail to yield to a pedestrian and kill them. Is that just an accident?

  • Neil

    Murph, supply your evidence for your assertion that less drivers carry insurance than drivers.

  • Neil

    Ryan,

    Except of course in this case where the victim is dead and the cyclist carries no indemnification.

  • Neil

    Proof, Mike>

    Or is that merely wild, prejudicial, self-serving conjecture on your part.

    The fact is that law requires drivers to carry insurance, even if some do not. Where is the law requiring cyclists to do so?

  • Neil

    How about a lien against their assets or a garnishment against their bank accounts or income?

    Problem?

  • Neil

    No, Cool, I am drawing a distinction between accidents and crimes, and you are not.

  • Anonymous

    http://www.bizjournals.com/losangeles/stories/2009/01/19/daily41.html?page=all

    18 percent of motorists in California are uninsured. Unless you think that 20% of driving age Californians are cyclists and uninsured….

  • Neil

    cool, the idea that one speed is the only safe speed is ridiculous. There are 6-lane highways in SF and there are narrow bendy hilly streets. The former can often be navigated safely at 50 while on the latter, 10mph may be too fast.

    As to your question, if you hit a pedestrian in your car, then questions need to be asked, and the cops will ask those questions. Have you committed a crime? It depends. But not necessarily so. Like I said, it depends,

  • Ryan Brady

    Bucchere was hospitalized from the accident.

  • Neil

    I never said 20% of Californians are cyclists and uninsured. I do claim that more than 20% of SF cyclists carry no insurance.

  • Anonymous

    Neil, supply your evidence for your assertion that more than 20% of SF cyclists carry no insurance.

    I ask that question despite the fact that what I said was “There are more non-insured drivers out there than there are non-insured cyclists, sir.”, which has nothing to do with percentages.

  • Neil

    Since neither of us have any proof for either proposition, why not instead focus on what we do know? The law requires drivers to carry insurance but does not require cyclists to do so.

    Other things equal, that would lead most people to believe that a greater percentage of SF cyclists are uninsured than SF drivers.

    If you can disprove that assertion, knock yourself

  • Neil

    Ryan, yes, I suspect that the impact of killing a pedestrian at 30mph plus would probably instill some level of injury and trauma.

    Your point?

  • Ryan Brady

    my point was that the incentive for a cyclist not to hit a pedestrian is the risk of injury to self. Drivers don’t have that. For some reason, you think that a slightly increased insurance premium is a bigger deterrent than risk of bodily harm, and that’s straight up ridiculous.

    You want to argue that it didn’t stop this one cyclist from killing someone? Fine. That is one instance. Do you have any idea how much more often people kill pedestrians with cars?

  • Anonymous

    I assert that the assertion of percentage of cyclists vs percentage of drivers is not an important stat. We know for a fact that 18% of drivers don’t have insurance. There are 800,000+ residents in SF, say perhaps 500,000 have drivers licenses, we are talking 100,000 uninsured motorists out there (modulo those who are uninsured who don’t have cars, but are insured by their rental companies).

    No matter what, this number is far greater than the sum number of cyclists, most of whom carry insurance on their cars.

    You are worried about what leverage we have on cyclist without a drivers license or insurance, my point is that this is a small *absolute* problem. It would be cheaper to just kick in money for a fund to help out people hit by uninsured cyclists than to try to figure out how to get them insured. Freakonomics.

  • vcs

    murphstahoe – the strava logs were discussed online after the accident. I just found some of your posts on the topic. Perhaps you don’t see a problem with the way Bucchere was riding, but it does not seem representative of 99% of SF cyclists, and many others don’t see the need to defend his behavior.

    The thing is you are responding to hyperbole with your own hyperbole: “everyone speeds”, “drivers use red light running apps”. When the reality is nobody defends grossly reckless driving, and prosecution of such would be popular.

  • Anonymous

    I have also been on record saying that Chris was riding too fast to go into that intersection no matter the color of the light. There is just too much crap going on in that intersection, you could have a full on green but get hit by a drunken fool falling into the road, or even just go down on the MUNI tracks which could have some oil on them from a passing car. I am troubled with calling his riding “gross negligence” under the terms of the law, but I sure as hell don’t ride like that (to start with, from where he came from and where he was going I would have taken the Wiggle instead).

    My only problem with this whole thing is that I believe Bucchere has received harsher treatment for the same level of negligence than had he been in a car, and there is statistical data to back that up.

    Nobody defends reckless driving but nobody is lining up to put the government’s feet to the fire to DEAL with it, but in the case of Chris Bucchere the pitchforks and torches are out. I am asking – where is this passion for all the other cases that seem to just melt into the earth?

  • Anonymous

    The vast majority of Strava segments’ fastest times are well under the posted speed limits. On flat ground and on climbs, it’s hard to find a cyclist breaking the speed limit since by law the minimum speed limit is 25 mph except in school zones.

    In the Bucchere case, he was estimated to be going about 30 mph through the intersection. How many drivers would be ticketed for going 30 mph in a 25 zone? How many drivers would see a yellow light and speed up to 35 mph to get through the intersection?

    Most cyclists don’t cross Market Street at 30 mph. What your interpreting as normalizing his behavior is actually complaints against unfair treatment. If a driver had done the same exact thing, it’s likely he or she wouldn’t have even been ticketed.

  • I feel justice was served. Bikes can be dangerous if they’re going fast and the user is reckless.

    Now, I’m sick of political figures saying “now, bikers need to know they are not above the law…” Of course we know that. We also know that many streets weren’t designed for us, and it’s actually safer for us to go cautiously through red at that T-intersection, as long as we don’t hurt anyone else, in order to get in front of car traffic.

    As we all know, drivers think they’re above the law too. Whether it’s blowing stop signs, running through red lights, not stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks, driving too closely to bikes, et cetera. But as the article points out, there’s rarely politicians that want to “set an example” for all drivers. Because drivers are “everyone”. You can’t make an example of the majority.

  • Joe R.

    If you kill someone while driving through negligence, recklessness, or incompetence, you should lose your license permanently. Same thing if you seriously injure someone.

  • Ari

    “Everyone” may be drivers. But not everyone is a reckless driver.

    DA’s could/should “set an example” for all reckless drivers.

  • Anonymous

    if you hit a pedestrian in your car, then questions need to be asked, and the cops will ask those questions.

    And you will say “I didn’t see them” and they will say “OK, then, unfortunate accident! Next!”

  • Ben Alexander

    It’s the response to pedestrian and cyclist deaths from cars that is really galling. We seem to have decided as a society that our roads are industrialized, scary spaces where only cars are allowed, and anyone else is just asking to be killed.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is that “I wasn’t paying attention to how I was driving so I ran over and killed this person” is not considered to be a crime. And it really should be. Aurora Venida, 87, was run over at Arguello and Geary in 2011 by someone making a turn. No charges were ever filed– it barely rated a mention in the paper. We are to believe– what? She jumped in front of a car? The driver was driving safely and just happened to run her over? Apparently, it’s entirely possible to run over old ladies and not commit any crime. And that’s just bizarre.

  • Elizabeth

    Vehicular manslaughter seems appropriate for anyone who accidentally kills someone while breaking the law such as speeding, running red lights, or failing to give the right of way to pedestrians in places where that is required.

  • Anonymous

    Sadly DA Gascon disagrees.

  • Mr Rogers

    Yeah, who cares that he killed a 71-year old man? It’s the imaginary UNFAIRNESS TO CYCLISTS that matters.

  • Elizabeth

    I didn’t mention being intoxicated, drugged, or texting and checking phone messages while operating a vehicle.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Prosecuting doing 40 in a 25 mph zone, which cars do all the time in SOMA, would very unpopular. Most auto defend this kind of reckless driving.

  • Mr Rogers

    No, “Often, bicyclists feel they are above the law” is just evidence that he’s got two eyes.

  • Anonymous

    Feelings are not visible things. Meanwhile, still no “message” to the most harmful of all road users–motorists.

  • Bruce Halperin

    I’m a fairly avid cyclist. I commute to work every day by bicycle. And every day I’m ashamed to see my fellow cyclists blasting through red lights on the Embarcadero, endangering themselves and pedestrians in the crosswalk. Only the lawbreakers themselves know what they “feel”, but they certainly ACT like they’re above the law.

  • mikesonn

    You miss the point.

  • Totally beside the point (of the article), but my response to Bruce: Every day, waiting at red lights with the other cyclists, I wonder, “Why don’t they blast through like it says they always do on the internet? Never mind the instant death aspect of it. Why do they just wait for the green light like sane people who value their lives? Sheesh!”

  • Bruce Halperin

    You can try to turn the situation around, but the fact remains that blasting through red lights is AGAINST THE LAW regardless of whether you’re driving a car or riding a bike.

  • mikesonn

    *facepalm*

  • Rabi Abonour

    Basically. Does there appear to be a double standard here? Yes. But the solution is to prosecute drivers, not fail to prosecute cyclists. If you blast through a red light into a crowded crosswalk and kill someone, you deserve to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This is true whether you are on a bike or in a car.

  • Avid, you say?

  • Stalking me across 3 consecutive disqus messages (on 2 sites) to opine the same tiresome inanity? I knew Mr. Rogers. I worked with Mr. Rogers. You, sir, are no Mr. Rogers.

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