Road Rights- Justice Served?
A road-raging doctor in Los Angeles received a guilty conviction this week, but will that effect cyclists in the long run?
By Bob Mionske
It was the road rage incident heard ‘round the cycling world —a motorist had harassed two cyclists, and then, incredibly, he pulled his car in front of them and slammed on his brakes. This past Monday, one chapter in that incident came to a close, as a jury convicted Dr. Christopher Thompson, 60, on seven felony counts stemming from two separate road rage incidents.
Mandeville Canyon Road is a popular destination for Los Angeles-area cyclists, due to its long stretches of road free of traffic signals and climbing terrain with little traffic. Situated in Brentwood, Mandeville Canyon Road is also an exclusive area that is home to some of Los Angeles’s more wealthy residents.
On July 4, 2008, Ron Peterson and Christian Stoehr were on a training ride on Mandeville Canyon Road. After stopping to assist a cyclist who had fallen, Peterson and Stoehr continued on their way. They were descending at about the 30 MPH speed limit, and as they passed another cyclist, a car came up behind them. Stoehr yelled “car back!” and they singled up, but as the driver passed, he shouted, “Ride single file!” Peterson shot back with an expletive and an upraised finger, and the driver responded by hitting the brakes. Stoehr was almost able to steer clear of the rear of the car, but clipped its corner as he passed, and went flying, landing in the roadway into the oncoming traffic lane; he suffered a separated shoulder. Peterson was not as fortunate. The car had stopped so suddenly that he slammed into the back of it, and was launched over his handlebars, face-first through the back window. The impact shattered several of his front teeth, fractured his nasal bones, and nearly severed his nose. Peterson extricated himself from the rear window, and sat on the curb.
Dr. Thompson called 911 to report the collision. The responding police officer reported that when he arrived at the scene, Thompson said that he was “tired” of the cyclists on Mandeville Canyon Road, and “I wanted to teach them a lesson.” Dr. Thompson, an emergency room physician and the owner of a medical records company, was placed under arrest on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, and was subsequently charged with two felony counts of reckless driving causing injury, and two felony counts of battery with serious bodily injury. Commenting afterward, Thompson’s attorney offered a hint of the defense strategy when he referred to the incident as “an unfortunate accident.”
Following his arrest, it came to light that Thompson had been involved in a nearly identical incident a few months prior to his run-in with Peterson and Stoehr. The cyclists in that incident—Patrick Watson and Josh Crosby—alleged that they had narrowly avoided injury as Dr. Thompson repeatedly used his vehicle as a weapon in an attempt to force them from the road. Watson and Crosby had reported the incident to the police, but because the only evidence in the case was the testimony of the two alleged victims—a classic “he said, they said” situation—the District Attorney’s office had declined to file charges against Dr. Thompson. However, in the aftermath of Dr. Thompson’s assault on Peterson an Stoehr, prosecutors took a renewed interest in Watson and Crosby’s case, and charged Dr. Thompson with a misdemeanor charge of reckless driving stemming from his encounter with Watson and Crosby.
Eventually, Dr. Thompson would face trial on a total of seven charges—two felony counts each of assault with a deadly weapon, battery with serious bodily injury, a felony count of reckless driving with specified injury, a felony count of mayhem, and a misdemeanor count of reckless driving. If convicted, he would be facing a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
The wheels of justice may turn slowly, but they do turn, and on October 16, 2009, the People of California began their case against Dr. Thompson, in a trial that would present evidence and testimony from each of the four cyclists Dr. Thompson was charged with assaulting. Testimony from Patrick Early, a fifth cyclist who had been harassed and assaulted, was also presented at trial. Countering the People’s case, Thompson’s attorney, who had hinted months earlier that he would be defending the incident as “an unfortunate accident,” painted a portrait of a man dedicated to saving lives who had accidentally injured two cyclists whose own aggression toward the defendant was the only instance of violence in the encounter.
The trial began with Stoehr’s testimony; on cross-examination, Peter Swarth, Thompson’s attorney, suggested that Peterson and Stoehr “took over the road,” and that because bikes are inherently unstable, Stoehr had simply fallen over. In his cross-examination of Peterson, Swarth attempted to paint a portrait of an angry cyclist who was looking for a fight when he encountered Thompson. Peterson’s own words, both before the crash, and after—he said, “I’m going to fuck you up” as he pulled himself from Thompson’s rear window—were used against him to intimate that it was Peterson, and not Thompson, who was spoiling for a fight. “You were out of control. You wanted him to stop,” Swarth alleged. “You’re furious.”
Swarth painted a similar portrait of cyclists Watson and Crosby, who had alleged that Thompson used his car as a weapon against them in March. “You wanted to kill him!” Swarth suggested to Watson. Turning the table on the cyclists, Swarth noted that it is aggressive cyclists who “remain anonymous,” because they don’t have license plates. After Crosby testified that he told Thompson to get out of the car, Swarth asked “Did you want to educate him?”
This defense strategy is exactly what I warned cyclists to be wary of in my previous column on road rage; while the motorist may claim that what happened was a “mistake” or an “accident,” anything that the cyclist says or does in response to the motorist will be scrutinized for evidence of the cyclist’s own intent. This is because it’s relatively easy to claim that an incident was “accidental,” but it’s much harder to claim that the response was not intentional. Although it’s often natural to respond to aggression, that response may later be portrayed as indicating that it was the cyclist, and not the “innocent” motorist, who was being aggressive. What is happening is the driver is manipulating the cyclist into responding in ways that will “justify” the driver’s subsequent behavior—and if the cyclist does respond, that response may later be used to show that it was the cyclist who was behaving aggressively.
And in fact, that is exactly what Thompson was doing in each of the three incidents presented at trial—he began by harassing the cyclist, and then, when the cyclist responded, he used that response to “justify” escalating the incident. Except at trial, he denied that he had assaulted anybody. Instead, he explained, he had just tried to stop so he could take a photo of the aggressive cyclists, and there had been an unfortunate accident. And one of the cyclists had probably just fallen because bikes are inherently unstable, and because they were spoiling for a fight, they were blaming him.
It may sound ludicrous to our ears, but that was how he attempted to portray the incident. The question at hand was whether the jury would also think it ludicrous, or whether it would be swayed by the doctor’s standing in the community, and the negative image of cyclists held by many motorists.
This defense strategy was countered by Thompson’s own words at the scene. Responding police officer Robert Rodriguez testified that when he arrived, Thompson told him:
“I live up the road. There were bikes in front of me, three across the road. They flipped me off. I stopped in front of them. I wanted to teach them a lesson. I’m tired of them.”
In his defense, Thompson took the stand, and denied that he had ever encountered Patrick Early, and claimed that he had only stopped in the other two incidents to get information about law-breaking cyclists for the police. He denied slamming on his brakes. He denied that he had ever told the police that he wanted to teach Peterson and Stoehr a lesson.
In the end, a jury weighed the evidence, and found Thompson guilty on all charges against him. Thompson, who was out on $30,000 bail, was handcuffed and taken into custody, with no bail. As the Judge noted, following Thompson’s conviction, no cyclist would feel safe with Thompson out on bail. Sentencing is set for December 3.
Although cyclists were generally relieved that Thompson had been convicted, I believe that this case is not really a victory for anyone. For one thing, it’s not a harbinger of new direction for officials. Instead, it’s a stand-alone case. Thompson wasn’t convicted because he slammed on his brakes and injured a cyclist. He was convicted because he had had three separate run-ins with cyclists, any of which he might have plausibly denied, but which, put together, suggested a pattern and practice of harassment and intent to harm. It’s unlikely that other road ragers will have a similar pattern and practice of harassment reported against them. However, as the Thompson trial has so aptly demonstrated, it’s important that cyclists report these types of incidents in order to create the paper trail that will put the lie to some future road rager’s denial of alleged intent. That past history was not the only thing that convinced the jury, however. There were also Thompson’s own words to police: “I wanted to teach them a lesson.” Finally, Thompson’s defense—that he just wanted to take a picture—was in the end unbelievable, when weighed against all the other evidence.
The question is whether other, future road rage cases will have similar outcomes. I think each case will stand or fall on its own merits. In this case, Thompson was convicted because of the weight of evidence against him. In this case, justice prevailed, and that’s something good that has come out of the incidents, but it doesn’t mean that there’s been some sort of sea change in society, or in the way these cases are handled. We’re still going to be encountering drivers who believe that we have no right to the road, and who will attempt to manipulate us into responding in ways that will “justify” their use of their cars as a weapon. And those drivers will still claim that what they did was an “accident,” and we’re still going to be scrutinized for our own behavior in response to the driver’s “mistake.” In most instances, there is no injury to the cyclist, and it’s a steep hurdle to prove intent when the “innocent” driver’s liberty is at stake.
Finally, this verdict will almost certainly be appealed. Thompson stands too much to lose to simply accept a guilty verdict, and his attorney has already laid the groundwork for appeal by raising numerous objections throughout the trial.
In the end, the cyclists involved received justice from the jury, and for that, they can be thankful. But as Christian Stoehr noted, it was also sad for both sides—“I lost a lot of my time and my life, and he’s losing a lot of his.”
(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)
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