Monday, July 21, 2014
Bicycles are, for the most part, less dangerous than cars or trucks. But reckless driving is a crime whether it’s committed with a gas pedal or foot pedals.
That was the conclusion of a state appeals court in Los Angeles that refused to dismiss a felony reckless-driving charge against a drunken cyclist accused of gravely injuring a pedestrian. It was the first appellate decision on the issue, and will become binding statewide unless overturned on appeal.
Thursday’s ruling came a year after a guilty plea in a fatal collision at a San Francisco intersection between a cyclist and a pedestrian that raised the same question: whether traffic rules and criminal penalties that were designed for motor vehicles should apply to human-powered vehicles that, while far smaller and lighter, can cause considerable harm and havoc.
Bikes versus cars can be a divisive issue, whether in the context of the Critical Mass cyclists who periodically take over San Francisco streets or the mutual accusations that arise when a turning motorist clips an unseen cyclist.
Cyclists, D.A. agree
But the court’s answer – that the same rules apply to all – didn’t trouble the executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition, Dave Snyder.
“There’s no controversy that if you drive recklessly on a bike and injure someone, you should be penalized fully,” he said. “If that rule were applied to everyone, everyone – especially pedestrians and bicyclists – would benefit.”
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who prosecuted last year’s case, expressed a similar view.
“The rules of the road should apply to everyone and are set up to avoid exactly the type of injury that occurred in this (Los Angeles) case,” he said in a statement. “Far too many people are getting seriously injured or killed on our streets.”
In the San Francisco case, bicyclist Chris Bucchere, a 37-year-old software engineer, reportedly ran through three red lights on March 29, 2012, before entering the intersection at Castro and Market streets. By varying accounts, he either rode past a yellow light or a red light before striking and killing 71-year-old Sutchi Hui of San Bruno, who was walking with his wife.
Gascón’s office charged Bucchere with felony vehicular manslaughter, punishable by up to six years in prison. A defense lawyer said the charge was unjustified. The dispute hadn’t yet reached the courts when Bucchere, who had no previous criminal record, pleaded guilty to the felony charge and was sentenced to three years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
Los Angeles case
Now the Second District Court of Appeal has spoken in the case of Jorge Velasquez Jr., who drank considerably while watching a baseball game at Dodger Stadium in April 2013 and then took to the road on a bicycle that had been modified to remove its brakes.
While pedaling on a hilly street, the court said, Velasquez veered onto the wrong side of the road to avoid a car and slammed into Suddha Russell, a Los Angeles pediatrician who was out jogging.
Russell was in a coma for 10 days and suffered broken bones in her face, the court said. Velasquez’s blood alcohol measured at more than twice the legal limit for drivers.
He was charged with reckless driving of a vehicle under a law that carries up to three years in prison for drivers who cause serious injuries, such as fractures or a loss of consciousness.
Velasquez’s lawyer sought to have the charge dismissed and said bicycles aren’t considered vehicles under California’s traffic laws. The defense cited a law that defines a “vehicle” as a device that can carry a person or property on a roadway, “excepting a device moved exclusively by human power.”
Deputy Public Defender Darren Ford argued that the Legislature “has been silent on ‘reckless riding’ of bicycles.”
But the court said a 1982 law specifies that anyone riding a bicycle on a road “has all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle.”
Those provisions, the court said, include the law against reckless driving. The panel said the Legislature enacted the 1982 measure in response to a 1980 ruling that had spared cyclists from criminal penalties.
The only exception, the court said, is a law that specifies lesser punishment – a fine of up to $250 – for bicycling while intoxicated. Driving a motor vehicle while drunk is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for a first offense, plus a license suspension.
“Bicyclists and drivers of motor vehicles will often pose different levels of threats by virtue of the contraption they drive,” Justice Richard Aldrich acknowledged in the 3-0 ruling, observing that bikes are generally less likely to inflict “carnage and slaughter.”
But the reckless-driving law bases its punishments on the harm caused – fines for little or no damage, imprisonment for serious injuries – and “provides notice that the bicyclist could be subject to the same criminal penalties as a reckless driver of a motor vehicle,” Aldrich said.
The public defender’s office could appeal to the state Supreme Court, which would then decide whether to set the ruling aside and take up the issue itself.