Legally Speaking - Shootout at the UA Corral
Wyatt Earp tried his hand at many things in his long and colorful life; at various times he worked as a farmer, teamster, buffalo hunter, saloon-keeper, gambler, and miner, among his many other occupations, but it was as a lawman in the Old Wild West that Earp found the immortality of lasting fame—and most of all, for his work as a sometime-lawman in Tombstone, Arizona. For a scant three months, beginning around July of 1880, Wyatt Earp was the Deputy Sheriff for southern Pima County. Following the November 1880 election loss of the Pima County Sheriff — an election loss that was soon discovered to be due to ballot-stuffing by the opposition — Earp resigned his position. Shortly thereafter, the eastern end of Pima County, where Tombstone was located, was peeled away to form Cochise County. Within a year, Earp, who had been biding his time in Tombstone until the next election, would be a central figure in the most famous shoot-out in the Old West — the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
One hundred twenty-six years later, and seventy-one miles to the west, there’s a new Shoot Out in town — one that has attracted the attention of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. Today’s Shoot Out is a weekly training ride that begins early Saturday mornings at the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, and heads south out of town before looping back to the starting point. Total miles? Nearly 60, with an 1800-foot climb, over the course of around 27 miles.
The Shoot Out was begun in the early 70s by Ralph Phillips and University of Arizona student Bob Cook, who would later be selected for the U.S. cycling team in the 1980 Olympics. Unfortunately for the 1980 team, the United States boycotted the Olympics that year following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By the end of 1980, Bob was beginning to feel the symptoms of the cancer that would claim his life three months later. Today, Bob’s memory lives on in the Bob Cook Memorial Mt. Evans Hillclimb ... and the Shoot Out.
Since 1974, the Shoot Out has grown from a four-person training ride to a weekly ride that regularly attracts in excess of 200 riders — half of them from out-of-town. Many pros take advantage of the mild Tucson winters to get in some training miles, and many locals appreciate the opportunity to ride with and learn from the pros. Of course, that kind of popularity is bound to garner attention — some of it, the unwanted kind. Recently, I received the following letter:
About every two years they get a bee in their bonnet about strict enforcement of every applicable traffic law and shadow one of the major training rides in the area to "prove that cyclists are scofflaws." I thought you’d be interested in taking a look at this video and website for the latest example:
(That ride commentary poses the same question we all probably have — what was the Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy thinking? Did he imagine that in grand Pima County Sheriff tradition, he was disarming the unruly desperadoes who were riding into town? Until — or should I say “unless?” — the Pima County Sheriff’s Department investigates the complaint that was filed following the incident, we can really only guess what he was thinking. What we can do is go over the facts.
As the Shoot Out has grown in popularity, it has attracted attention, and with that attention, complaints about rider behavior from motorists and others; additionally, because the ride passes through one or more Reservations, Native American tribes have also voiced complaints, threatening to close the Reservation roads to non-native riders if the riders don’t start obeying tribal traffic laws.
And it’s not just the Shoot Out that’s got the attention of law enforcement; one cyclist reports that the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department has threatened to shut down the Cochise County Cycling Classic — an annual long-distance ride — if so much as one SAG wagon or one rider violates one traffic law. While the violation of traffic and other laws is a legitimate subject for law enforcement concern, it seems to me that threatening to shut down an entire ride just because one person violated one law is taking that concern to ridiculous extremes. Is this really about out-of-control cyclists? Or is it also about out-of-control law enforcement over-reacting to a situation that can easily be handled through more traditional means?... And by “traditional means,” I’m referring to traffic citations, not gunfights at the UA Corral.
Of course, law enforcement actions implying that cyclists are out of control raises the question — Just what sorts of complaints have led to law enforcement attention in the first place? The Pima County Sheriff’s Department reports that it has received complaints about cyclists riding more than two abreast, riding in both lanes by crossing over the double yellow line into the oncoming traffic lane in order to advance up the peloton, stoplight and stop sign running, and mass public urination (and one reported act of defecation in somebody’s front yard). On March 8, the next ride after the crash, a Deputy in an unmarked Pima County Sheriff’s Department vehicle video-recorded desperadoes … er, riders violating most of the laws about which complaints have been received. That video was subsequently played at a sub-committee meeting of the Tucson-Pima County Bicycle Advisory Committee as law enforcement evidence that there is a problem with cyclists, rather than law enforcement, during the ride. That wasn’t the first time the BAC had heard from law enforcement about the Shoot Out, however; in early January, the BAC noted in a letter to Shoot Out riders, organizers, and sponsors many of the problems that were the subject of citizen complaints.
Later that month, on the January 26 ride, a Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy attempted to pull a group of riders over, intending to give them a verbal warning about alleged traffic violations. Fifteen of the riders stopped, but many riders simply ignored the officer’s commands to stop. This indifference to lawful orders admittedly rankled the Sheriff’s Department. As I noted in Bicycling & the Law, cyclists have the virtually same legal duties as motorists—it’s the flip side of having virtually the same legal rights. Among other things, this means that when a law enforcement officer makes a traffic stop, cyclists are required to stop; ignoring the officer can lead to the cyclist’s arrest if the officer decides to enforce the order to stop, and in this instance, may have lead to more aggressive behavior towards all cyclists by local law enforcement.
Now what about those other complaints of scofflaw behavior? In Arizona, cyclists may take the lane if they are riding at the “normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing.” This is an interesting provision; what happens, for example, when the majority of vehicles on the road are bicycles? Must they give up the lane when the occasional lone automobile approaches? According to the wording of the law, no—they have the right to take the lane, because the normal speed of traffic at that time and place is the speed of the peloton. Of course, there’s no prohibition on politely allowing a motor vehicle to pass when it is safe to do so, and some attention to social niceties might go far in reducing cyclist-motorist tension during the ride.
Now, there’s another interesting wrinkle in the law — in Arizona, cyclists must not ride more than two abreast. This means that although cyclists may take the lane when they are traveling at the normal speed of traffic, they must not ride more than two abreast when they take the lane. Now let’s think about that; as a practical matter, when cyclists are taking the lane, does it really doesn’t make any difference whether they’re riding two abreast, three abreast, or nine abreast? They’re still taking the lane, and motorists still cannot legally share the lane if the lane is too narrow to safely share. Therefore, while it is technically illegal to ride more than two abreast at any time, there’s really no practical reason to cite cyclists who are riding more than two abreast if they are otherwise allowed to take the lane.
Other traffic violations that the Sheriff’s Department has received complaints on include the practice that some cyclists have of crossing the double yellow line on the ride, and the practice of running stops. These are both pretty cut and dried — they both expose the cyclist to the risk of receiving a citation, and they both expose the Shoot Out to the risk of being shut down.
Finally, law enforcement has received numerous complaints of public urination, and even one complaint of public defecation. These incidents point to a dilemma; as readers of Bicycling & the Law know, these are the types of acts that can lead to criminal prosecution for public indecency. On the other hand, when you gotta go, you gotta go, and on a 60 mile ride, that may mean answering the call of nature … in nature. So what’s a cyclist to do? Your best defense will be “I really had to go,” but that will only avail you if you used discretion in the first place. It should go without saying that if people can see you answering the call of nature, you’re not being as discreet as the law requires. ((So those issues are the legal background to the incident on the March 1st Shoot Out. On the February 23rd Shoot Out, several riders were again pulled over by a law enforcement officer, presumably in response to observed violations. Assuming that the officer did observe traffic violations, this traffic stop was reasonable and appropriate, as was the traffic stop in January. The following week, on March 1st, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department again received a complaint from a citizen that “there was a large group of cyclists traveling on Mission Road.” Apparently oblivious to the fact that there’s nothing illegal about “a large group of cyclists traveling on Mission Road,” the Sheriff’s Department swung into action. As the riders were heading back to Tucson on Duval Mine Road, near Green Valley, the responding Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy crossed the double yellow line with his lights flashing, driving head-on towards the peloton, apparently in an attempt to stop the peloton because some riders had crossed the double yellow line into the oncoming traffic lane. As the Sheriff’s Deputy approached the peloton, which was reported to be traveling at somewhere between 30 and 40 MPH, the lead riders braked hard to avoid a collision with the Sheriff’s Deputy; several riders mid-peloton went down hard, twisting frames and shredding skin.
Really? “Good?” So if, let’s say, the driver of an automobile crosses the double yellow line, it’s an appropriate law enforcement response to run the driver off the road, cause a crash resulting in massive damage to the vehicle and injury to the occupants, and then say “Good”? Is that really Standard Operating Procedure for minor traffic infractions in Pima County? Or is that procedure just reserved for cyclists? One could say it’s just one officer who made a mistake, but what do we make of that other over-reaction then — the one in which the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department has threatened to shut down the Cochise Classic if one SAG Wagon or one rider breaks even one traffic law? Are we really dealing with an isolated incident, or are we dealing with a pervasive attitude of law enforcement bias against cyclists in Pima and Cochise counties?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that it may be the latter. Riders report that this isn’t the first time that Tucson-area law enforcement has used these tactics or caused injuries. It’s not difficult to conclude from the evidence that there’s an underlying departmental attitude of anti-cyclist bias, with a few officers taking the bias to extremes, comfortable in the knowledge that no departmental action will be taken against them. One thing we do know is that this was not one isolated incident of law-enforcement bias; later that day, the same Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy who drove head-on at the peloton received a report from one of the Shoot Out riders that a truck had run the rider off the road as he was trying to assist another cyclist who had crashed in a separate incident unrelated to the peloton crash. The Deputy’s response? He was reported to have had “a friendly chuckle with the driver of the truck” before sending him on his way.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s just one bad apple in the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, and not a pervasive departmental bias against cyclists. Presumably, an unbiased Sheriff’s Department, upon receiving an official complaint that a Sheriff’s Deputy drove head-on at a group of cyclists, thereby causing a crash, would be inclined to investigate the complaint to determine whether the Sheriff’s Deputy was acting within Department procedures. Presumably…but there’s still no word from the Sheriff’s Department in response to the complaint, and judging by the Sheriff’s video presentation, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department appears to be more interested in shifting the blame for the crash to the Deputy’s victims.((
(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.) (
I’d like to extend my thanks to everybody who has contacted me to request my appearance at their event. I will be speaking extensively on "Bicycling & the Law" this year, and will make plans to appear before any club, bike shop, or other engagement that is interested in hosting me. If you would like me to appear to speak at your event or shop, or to your club or group, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. (and if you would like to contact me with a question or comment not related to my speaking tour, please drop me a line at email@example.com). I’m looking forward to meeting as many of my readers as possible in the coming year.
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