Commentary: Bay Area DAs Complicit in Anti-Cyclist Attacks
4:27 PM PST on February 15, 2023
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Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan was out walking her dog in 2021 when she was mowed down and killed in a crosswalk by a motorist who couldn't see because of glare but nonetheless kept going. District Attorney Nancy O'Malley declined to press charges. Earlier that year, Contra Costa DA Diana Becton decided not to press charges against a driver who swerved into a bike lane in San Ramon and killed New York Jets coach Greg Knapp. A statement from Becton's office confirmed that the driver was distracted.
These are just the recent, high-profile cases where reckless drivers who killed weren't prosecuted, let alone cited. Streetsblog could rattle off case after case where prosecutors, despite dealing with clear-cut cases of driver negligence and recklessness, copped out.
The result should surprise no one: now a group of drivers has weaponized their cars and is seeking out and assaulting cyclists in the East Bay for kicks. They've received the message that you can mash cyclists with impunity.
There's a fraction of people who, for whatever reason, take pleasure in harming others. If a door is opened for them to satisfy their sick motivations without any fear of repercussion, they do it. That's a pattern repeated throughout human history, from Genghis Khan to William Calley to cops like Derek Chauvin.
Prosecutors and police who don't take responsibility for this connection are morally confused. The drivers who killed Chan and Knapp aren't sadists, but they absolutely should be prosecuted. They became criminals when they decided to operate deadly machinery in a reckless manner.
The DAs claim--to the point they give any explanation--that it's just too hard to get a conviction in distracted and reckless driver cases, presumably because of the windshield bias of jurors. But in the pursuit of justice, rather than good stats as a prosecutor, it's okay to risk losing. And if they really want good conviction stats, they could also try being better lawyers.
A couple of decades ago, most DAs took the same tack towards drunk driving. It was just something tragic that happened; not a real crime. It was impossible to get a conviction anyway, they would say. Mothers Against Drunk Driving waged a passionate battle against this attitude.
The turning point came in 2006, when Long Island District Attorney Kathleen Rice successfully convicted Martin Heidgen of murder. Heidgen had driven drunk the wrong way on a freeway, slamming into a limousine carrying a family returning from a wedding.
The driver of the limo was killed. Seven-year-old Katie Flynn was decapitated in the crash, right in front of her mother.
Amazingly, at the time, some people still argued that Heidgen "just" made a bad choice and shouldn't be prosecuted for murder. Yes, he made a bad choice--he made the choice to get into his truck and drive drunk, playing Russian Roulette with the public.
Note that Rice didn't need new laws to obtain that conviction. Nevertheless, she would later successfully run for congress, where she continued the fight against impaired driving.
Thanks to the hard work of MADD and people such as Rice, our legal culture has changed. Drunk driving is now looked at as a serious crime of recklessness, albeit still not nearly as much as it should be. Driving with one's face in a cell phone or accelerating after getting blinded by the sun should be looked at the same way as drunk driving. It's the same choice to be reckless and irresponsible to the point of criminality.
The sadists who have been roaming the East Bay, intentionally slamming cyclists, may not know the specifics of the Knapp or Chan cases, but they clearly got the message that anybody in a car is free to harm people. Same goes for drivers who harass and threaten cyclists daily. Yes, we need better infrastructure to protect cyclists and pedestrians. But we also need prosecutors to do their jobs, change this deadly narrative, and treat traffic violence as a real crime.
There will be a group ride this Sunday, Feb. 19, starting at West Oakland BART, to show solidarity with the victims of these recent attacks. Meet at 11 a.m. Ride rolls out at 1.
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