Marin Decision Highlights Urgent Need for State Legislation to Protect Vulnerable Road Users

Motorist Matthew Marshall Engle Threatens to Shoot a Cyclist, Tries to Run him off the Road, and Drives Blindly Through a Crosswalk--but Reckless Driving Charges Dismissed

Matthew Marshall Engle, a Ross motorist who was caught on video threatening to kill a cyclist and driving recklessly, is let off without any penalty by a Marin judge. Image: Jan Weissenberger
Matthew Marshall Engle, a Ross motorist who was caught on video threatening to kill a cyclist and driving recklessly, is let off without any penalty by a Marin judge. Image: Jan Weissenberger

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

Last February, Jan Weissenberger was riding his bike from the Larkspur Ferry terminal to his home in San Rafael, when, as he was heading north on Ross Common, he was passed close on his right by crazed motorist Matthew Marshall Engle, driving a dark-red SUV. Engle blasted his horn, screamed threats, and backed his car at him.

Weissenberger had a camera mounted on the back of his bike and captured the whole incident (see embedded video below).

“I sent an email with the video to the Ross Police department,” said Weissenberger in an interview with Streetsblog. “And then I came in, gave a statement, and then the police department forwarded it to the District Attorney.”

“The Marin DA charged the gentleman with reckless driving – a misdemeanor. Thank you to all who have asked about what happened! Ride safe (ride with a bike camera)!!” wrote Weissenberger on his YouTube channel, where he posted the video of the incident.

Months went by. Court dates were set and rescheduled. The DA’s office told Weissenberger they were going to offer Engle, a local structural engineer, a plea deal. “They told him he was going to get a fine and his license was going to get suspended for a couple of months,” said Weissenberger, who also told Streetsblog that he was fine with the plea deal, because “… he was going to get a pretty bad ding on his record.”

But apparently Engle refused to make a deal. And, from his perspective, that turned out to be a good decision. As reported in the Marin Independent Journal, on Dec. 29, Judge Sheila Lichtblau dismissed the case after Engle showed proof that he had obtained anger counseling. Weissenberger never heard from the DA again and learned of the results from the Marin IJ.

“This underscores the need for a statewide anti-harassment law,” wrote Jim Elias, Executive Director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, in an email to Streetsblog.

There are local ordinances against harassing bicycle riders and other vulnerable road users with a car. Oakland, Berkeley, Sunnyvale, Sebastopol have them. Los Angeles, the first city to have one, passed an ordinance back in 2011.

But they don’t work.

Streetsblog couldn’t find any examples of the local ordinances being used in California (if someone knows otherwise, please comment below). “I’ve never heard of a case brought under the harassment laws here in L.A. I thought it was a sop when it was passed,” wrote Jonathan Weiss, an attorney and safe streets advocate. “I have not heard of any cases being brought to date from either the Oakland or Berkeley anti-harassment ordinances, but there’s always the chance that something happened under the radar,” said Robert Prinz, Education Director at Bike East Bay.

Streetsblog reached out to lawyers in the Bay Area and was told the only recourse under local harassment ordinances is small claims court (presumably because the dollar amount for the fine is so small that no lawyer will take the case)–but, either way, that requires identifying the driver. Since the DMV won’t provide an address from a license plate without a state mandate, that’s a dead end. “I didn’t oppose it, but I thought the [anti-harassment] law was a cop out,” added Weiss.

That’s why the state desperately needs an anti-harassment law to protect cyclists, pedestrians, and everyone else who uses our streets from crazed motorists who just shouldn’t be behind the wheel. We shouldn’t have to wait until they actually send someone to the hospital or the morgue, if they have already demonstrated, on video no less, that they are psychologically unfit to drive. In 2014, Governor Brown vetoed A.B. 2398, from Mark Levine (D-San Rafael), which would have at least raised fines for violations when certain “vulnerable road users,” including bicyclists and pedestrians, were injured as a result of the violation. Brown’s veto message read: “I think the current laws are sufficient.” The League of American Bicyclists also has a model text for vulnerable road user legislation, although these laws, again, deal with incidents that result in injury or death–in other words, after it’s too late.

Note that in the video, Engle drives across and then backs through the crosswalk at the intersection with Lagunitas, next to Ross Elementary School. Then at 53 seconds into the YouTube clip, watch Engle’s eyes; he never takes them off of Weissenberger as he drives through the crosswalk one last time. Imagine if a group of children had started crossing the street at that moment? Engle was so apoplectic that he would have driven right over them, as he never looked forward once as he pressed the accelerator on his 4,500-pound vehicle. Weissenberger, who recently became a father himself, suspects the proximity to the elementary school had a lot to do with why the DA brought charges in the first place.

It’s good that Engle is seeking psychological help, but in the meantime, for the sake of public safety, he must lose his driving privileges. The fact that Lichtblau, who presumably watched the video, still couldn’t see that, says much about her and our society’s messed up priorities and our dysfunctional legal system when it comes to our streets. Streetsblog urges our lawmakers in Sacramento to do something.

“This is the worst I’ve seen in my commuting, and I’ve been riding a bike for a long time,” said Weissenberger, who drives and owns two cars himself, but prefers to bike to and from the ferry for his commute. “I bike to decompress from the day and get some exercise. I was just riding home.”

  • Flatlander

    The anti-harassment laws are absolutely ineffective. Cops will never, ever enforce them unless they happen right in front of their noses, and even then it’s extremely unlikely.

    At least, that’s my personal experience having tried to file police reports after ghastly instances of harassment (even with eyewitness accounts of motorists violating the 3-foot passing law in an aggressive and threatening manner)

  • Al

    The way the law treats these types of things, for better or worse, is to take account of the actual harm done. And although this driver was an ass, took risks and could easily have injured someone, the actual outcome was that there was no harm done.

    So the question has to be asked – how much punishment should there be if, in the end, there was no loss, harm or injury? Being yelled at is unpleasant, but ultimately inconsequential. My wife yells at me all the time.

    It is the same with many types of traffic offense. If nobody is harmed, it’s just a ticket. But injure or kill somebody and the charges can be much more serious.

    In other words, it’s mostly a matter of good or bad luck.

  • Christopher Childs

    (even with eyewitness accounts of motorists violating the 3-foot passing law in an aggressive and threatening manner)

    Oh, you mean like… the Ross police? I was preparing to take a left onto Lagunitas from Shady Lane with a group when an officer pulled into the oncoming lane like he was trying to cut around our group at the stop sign. You can’t pass anyone on that road; the lane is like 7 feet wide and it’s striped double yellow. You’ll always violate the three foot law, and there’s no provision for allowing you to pass slow vehicles over a double yellow.

  • Cynara2

    You can hear Weissenberger say at the end of the tape, “You’re on candid camera, MATTHEW.” He already knew this driver. He set him up. 00:54. “you’re on candid camera, MATTHEW.” This was a total set up.

  • Ad Coelum

    So…you’re obviously not a lawyer. Criminal conduct, such as reckless driving or assault, is still criminal even if nobody is physically hurt.

    The law is a system of social control. It IS designed to punish people who behave recklessly, even if, fortunately, the consequences could have been worse.

    Speeding is a ticket, a violation of the vehicle code. Reckless driving is a misdemeanor, a violation of the criminal code. There’s a difference.

  • michael macdonald

    Haha. No. He says “motherf-” and then restrains himself from cursing at the angry man behind the wheel who just tried to run him over and is screaming at him that he’s a “little bastard.”

    Weissenberger had lot more restraint than this rage-filled driver did.

  • Flatlander

    I mean, I guess when a car passes me within inches, intentionally, intending to teach me a lesson or something, you could say that no physical harm is done, but that guy needs to be stopped before he actually does hurt someone.

  • A driver who threatens to kill someone should have their driving privileges revoked and they should be put in jail. If a cyclist threatened to kill a driver and wielded a weapon, they would be arrested.

    Threatening to kill a person does cause harm. If you’ve ever had your life threatened, you’d probably understand this. Do you seriously think that drivers should be free to assault anyone they wish whenever they felt like it without any consequences? Try thinking that one through for minute. Assault shouldn’t become legal just because the perp is driving.

  • Chris J.

    Recent harassment by driver story: A few weeks ago I was bicycling eastbound on 24th St. at around 7pm with my bike lights on, stopped at a light on South Van Ness I think. Behind me, the driver of an SUV held his car horn down for about 15 seconds. I had to cover my ears to protect them. Then he started yelling at me and pulled up alongside to my left while the light was still red (crossed into the oncoming lane). He opened the passenger window and yelled that I should be pulled to the side of the road, and that I should “move back to where I came from, to New York or Boston or wherever.” Someone on the sidewalk was yelling to the driver to stop. I didn’t say anything back, but what is someone to do in situations like that? I was just riding normally on a street that cars can’t go fast on anyways.

  • Stuart

    Do you seriously think that drivers should be free to assault anyone they wish whenever they felt like it without any consequences?

    “Al” is the latest renaming of one of RichLL’s many accounts. If you’re familiar with his posting history, you’ll know that the position he takes in his comments on whether or not assault is acceptable is, in fact, strongly correlated with the modes of transportation of the people involved.

  • Thanks for the heads up. There is a very strong anti-bicycle bias coming from a really small percentage of bullies. I experience this both on our streets and online. Most people out there are decent and respectful to those around them. Others like to pick fights because they get pleasure from witnessing other people’s stress.

  • Someone need a huggy-wuggy?

  • Cynara2

    Either way, I totally get that cyclists do not care that Weissenberger treats pedestrians a whole lot worse than this driver treated him. You have made yourselves perfectly clear.

  • Cynara2

    Most cyclists are not decent and respectful to those around them. Perhaps they like to pick fights with pedestrians because they get please from witnessing other people’s stress.

  • I’m sorry you feel that way, but as a cyclist that is absolute not true. I go out of my way to avoid any potential conflicts as most cyclists do. A collision with a pedestrian is often times worse for the cyclist. Sadly I have seen cyclists ride recklessly, just like i’ve seen reckless drivers and reckless pedestrians. But to claim that most cyclists aren’t decent and respectful is not only offensive, it’s dead wrong.

  • AlanThinks

    As a daily cyclist I stop for ALL pedestrians and frequently put myself in the way of cars to make them stop too.

  • Cynara2

    I live where Weisenberger took this video. It is one hundred percent true that 999 out of a thousand cyclists will absolutely not stop for a pedestrian here. Feeling has nothing to do with it. It is absolute reality in Ross Valley. But, the community is ecstatic that law enforcement is doing something about it now. The police have been flooded with so many calls of gratitude that they put out public notice for people to stop calling them to say thank you.

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