Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Should cyclists' deaths result in a California DUI investigation of Officer?

California DUI lawyer news

Last week, a collision killed two cyclists, and sent a third to the hospital with serious injuries.

On March 9, a group of cyclists from was out training on Stevens Canyon Road in Santa Clara County, in the hills west of Cupertino. There were about a dozen cyclists, most of them members of the Third Pillar Racing Team; the cyclists were trailed by two team coaches in a van.

Three of the cyclists had pulled away, and were riding single file about 10-20 seconds ahead of the main group; one of the cyclists, Matt Peterson, 29, of San Francisco, was a member of Roaring Mouse Cycles Team. The other two cyclists were Kristy Gough, 30, a San Leandro resident and member of the Third Pillar Racing team and Christopher Knapp, 20, a German national and member of the FC-Rheinland-Pfalz Racing Club.

At about 10:25 A.M., a Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Deputy heading the opposite direction in his cruiser crossed the double yellow line and drove head-on into the three cyclists. Matt Peterson was killed instantly; Kristy Gough’s left leg was severed, and Christopher Knapp sustained a broken arm and leg. The three cyclists were five minutes away from their finish at Stevens Creek Reservoir when they were struck.

Arriving at the scene moments after, Third Pillar teammate Daniel Brasse, 41, of San Mateo described the chaotic scene as “screams of pain."

The sheriff’s deputy, 27 year old James Council, who eyewitnesses later reported had been speeding and driving erratically for several miles, was reported to be “walking around in a daze" following the crash, saying that he “must have fallen asleep."

As one cyclist was lying dead in the road, another lay dying, and a third was writhing in agony, the Deputy is reported to have paced the road, saying "my life is over" and "my
career is over."

It was left to Brasse to administer first aid to Kristy Gough. His heroic efforts repeatedly kept her from slipping away as they waited for a helicopter to airlift her to Stanford; with his help, she valiantly clung to life, only to pass away later, at Stanford.

As Brasse was working to save Kristy’s life — one look told him that Peterson was already gone — Council continued to pace in a daze, telling gathering bystanders “I must have fallen asleep," until another deputy steered him away from the gathering bystanders and advised him to stop talking.

Many people might have the same reaction in a tragic accident — but this wasn’t just anybody, this was a law enforcement officer, trained to handle emergencies. And the fact that he’s a law enforcement officer has raised the question of whether the investigation of this crash will be handled any differently than if the driver had not been a cop.

The crash involved one of their own, so the Sheriff’s Office turned the investigation of the crash over to the California Highway Patrol. And inexplicably, although the policy in any officer-involved crash is to test for blood alcohol level, the Highway Patrol did not test Deputy Council. Nevertheless, the Sheriff’s office stated that they are “within the letter of the policy," implying that a blood sample has been taken. But was there?

It was later confirmed that a blood sample had been taken, and submitted to the Highway Patrol. However, even though a blood sample was taken, it’s troubling that the investigating agency did not take the sample. It’s equally troubling that the deputy left the scene of the crash before accident investigators came to the scene.

Are we as a society really more concerned about doping racers than we are about impaired drivers? Does that really make any sense? And if the driver were not a deputy sheriff, would the Highway Patrol decline to conduct a sobriety test, or take a blood sample? If the driver were not a deputy sheriff, would the Highway Patrol give the driver the option to control the chain of custody of a blood sample?

The reporter covering this crash for the San Jose Mercury News asked those same questions, and surprisingly, the answer was yes, it is standard procedure not to test for alcohol in a fatal collision, unless DUI is suspected. But in a crash like this, where the driver being investigated left the scene before investigators arrived, how would anybody be able to determine whether DUI was suspected? And the fact that he left the scene raises another question — would you or I be allowed to leave the scene of a fatal collision before investigators arrived? Would you or I be assisted in leaving by law enforcement personnel? Again, the Mercury News reports that is also standard procedure — something I think most of us find difficult to believe.

These are important points, because following the accident, news surfaced that prior to his employment with the Sheriff’s Office, Council had been charged with two counts of drunk driving and “exhibition of speed," which he successfully pleaded down to an admission of guilt on the exhibition of speed charge. Although there is no indication that Deputy Council had been drinking prior to this collision, witnesses did report his speeding and erratic driving, and Deputy Council himself has no explanation, beyond “I must have fallen asleep," for how the collision occurred.

Could he have fallen asleep? Driving while drowsy is certainly an all-too-common phenomenon, right up there with distracted driving and DUI. All we know is that Deputy Council had worked a 12 ½-hour shift the day before, and had ten and a half hours off before the start of another 12 ½-hour shift at 6 a.m., 4 1/2 hours before the fatal crash.

In the days following the crash, the curtain was torn away from law enforcement’s “dirty little secret we don’t tell people about" — most officers work long, difficult shifts, with fatigue a constant companion. Departmental pressures force more cops to work longer hours; as one officer put it, “they don’t give a crap about how tired we get."

Following the crash, Sheriff Laurie Smith tearfully accepted departmental responsibility for the crash. But the damage had already been done. Will the Sheriff’s Department just pay out for its liability in this crash, and continue to put drowsy deputies behind the wheel? Or will this crash be the impetus for substantive road safety improvements, beginning with overhauling exhausting work schedules that lead to exhausted law enforcement officers?