Bay Area drivers rarely charged for fatal pedestrian accidents

April 29, 2013 8:19:31 PM PDT
Less than half of the drivers who hit pedestrians are ever charged with a crime, even if they are at fault. Those who do, serve little time in jail. That's what our media partner, the non-profit the Center for Investigative Reporting found when they started digging through data from the California Highway Patrol and compared it to court records.

In September 2011, 6-year-old Siorelli Torres was on her way to school when she was struck down at a crosswalk by a teacher driving to another school. Police determined that the driver was at fault for failing to yield the right of way.

Guadalupe Zamora is still waiting for police and prosecutors to bring her daughter's killer to justice.

"They should do what they need to do, because it's not right that the driver is running around free as if nothing had happened," she said.

But East Palo Alto residents were outraged when the officers released the teacher. District Attorney Steve Wagstaff says his team decided not to prosecute, even though he agrees that the driver was at fault.

He says jury's too often sympathize with the driver.

"In my three-and-a-half decades as a prosecutor, I've seen that time and time again. Is this the sort of one where a jury may say, 'But for the grace of God, that's me, I don't want to call this person a criminal,'" said Wagstaff.

The Center for Investigative Reporting poured over pedestrian records collected by the state and found that 30 percent of people killed by drivers, were hit while walking in a legal crosswalk. That's three times the national average.

Since the 1930s prosecutors have had difficulty convincing juries to convict drivers for killing pedestrians. In response, California lawmakers in 1945 created a vehicular manslaughter statute, with lighter sentences and the option of charging the crime as a misdemeanor, not a felony.

A review of five years of pedestrian deaths by the Center for Investigative Reporting shows that prosecution rates are still low. Sixty percent of drivers who were found to be at fault for killing pedestrians or suspected of a crime like hit and run did not face criminal charges. When prosecutors did file, the punishments were often light. In fact, more than 40 percent of drivers charged with killing a pedestrian did not even have their licenses revoked. Four of ten drivers who were convicted, were sentenced to just one day or got no jail time at all.

Wagstaff says he's concerned by these numbers.

"We're not simply saying we're not in the mood to do these cases, a life has been lost, but we need a little more than that, we need to know, OK what would be a tool, what could be something that could help us convince jurors," he said.

Wagstaff feels public awareness is a first step towards changing jurors' attitudes. He's open to working with prosecutors and lawmakers to try new approaches.

At the state capitol, Assm. Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, is sponsoring a bill that would require all California drivers to sign a statement declaring they will pay more attention to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Ammiano said, "We're hoping that it will, well, number one put it on the radar, but number two help with, uh, if the DAs do really want to prosecute, that they have some proof that somebody signed this statement, so they were aware that they could endanger other people, and that that would be helpful in the prosecution."

Whether the bill has the support needed to pass, is still up in the air. A similar bill failed to pass the legislature in 2010.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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