Chris Bucchere’s fatal bicycle vs. pedestrian accident last year in San Francisco’s Castro district turned a lot of heads with the severity of implications facing the cyclist who killed a pedestrian by hitting him with his bicycle. I have been following this story from the start to the present, as I believe this tragedy has great meaning to both the bicycle and pedestrian communities. And I believe this story increases the enmity between bicyclists and, well, everyone.
First, let me say that if Bucchere is indeed guilty, then he should be held 100% accountable. I am likely to get a lot of anti-bicycle hateful comments to this posting, but I am not urging leniency for the guilty and I am not condoning the arrogant recklessly dangerous riding of some bad bicyclists or even of Mr. Bucchere. I don’t want to buy into his criminal culpability just because he plea bargained. If we assume this cyclist is guilty from his plea bargain, aren’t we all just buying into the anti-bicyclist hate that is being poured online?
It would be so easy to just follow the news and regurgitate the facts here, but this case has been on my mind a lot and I want to raise some issues and to open some discussion. It’s pretty obvious that I have always believed strongly in accountability and I still do. If Mr. Bucchere was as guilty as the District Attorneys said he was, then why let him off so lightly? It has been my experience that the DA’s office does not cut breaks if they think they can win a conviction. Let’s not mince words here. This plea bargain demonstrates to me that the DA’s office had doubts as to its ability to prove their case. But public relations demand a better spin.
District Attorney George Gascon stated,
“Our goal is to send a message to cyclists about safety. Just because you are riding a bicycle doesn’t mean all bets are off. All of the rules of the road that apply to everyone else apply to you too. With the conditions of this plea, the defendant will be held accountable for the tragic death of Sutchi Hui and will have an opportunity for redemption. We hope this case continues to serve as a reminder that blatant disregard of the traffic laws can have dire consequences.”
Given the reaction of the press and the hateful anti-bike commentary on the web, perhaps Mr. Gascon has indeed made his point. Since this is a legal blog, let’s talk legal opinion.
For civil liability, we need to prove only negligence. For criminal liability, it generally takes more intent or at least recklessness. For negligent homicide, it takes negligence but at least gross negligence or something bigger than simple negligence. So, where lies the distinction? These lines can get blurry.
The press has been acting as if every allegation by the DA has been proven in a court of law before a judge and jury. But nothing has been proven. Not one single fact, so we must depend on the DA’s office and the press for our information and assume that they are telling and reporting all of the truth. I have some doubts. I will always have doubts if there has not been a trial or a confession.
This story was just so timely, and the political benefits of prosecuting so great that the case just had to be prosecuted. With less than 40% of the negligent manslaughters prosecuted what was so sexy about a bicyclist causing a pedestrian death that wasn’t available if this were just another random truck vs. pedestrian fatality?
There is a constant battle for public opinion regarding bicyclists and whether they should even share the road. And this makes excellent fodder for the press. How many bicyclists have actually killed pedestrians? And how many have been prosecuted? I believe that the percentage of bicyclist prosecutions is far higher than motor vehicle prosecutions for the same alleged crime. And how do we feel when, for most all crimes, the people need to prove intent, but if a person dies, we need only prove negligence? Do you think that negligence should ever be enough to put someone behind bars?
If this cyclist had started at the top of the hill, saying to himself, “I know I probably won’t make the light and I know I might hurt or kill someone,” then we would have the requisite intent or recklessness to prove a crime, in my opinion. But did the DA ever prove that intent or recklessness in Mr. Bucchere? Nothing was proven, ever. This was a settlement.
One of the things that bothers me is that the press in this story bought into everything that the prosecutors said, without analyzing the evidence itself. And we are supposed to believe that the family of decedent Hui didn’t want jail time for Bucchere? Did anyone from the Hui family actually say that to anyone from the press? Or was this what the prosecutors said instead of admitting to some flaws in their case? Did the Hui family really dictate to the DA? I doubt that because most insurance policies do not cover you for an act when you have been convicted of a felony in doing that act. And there will certainly be a civil action. So, if the Hui family wanted to recover financially, and they actually had some influence on the DA, wouldn’t they have urged the DA not to insist on a felony? Is this one of those felonies that can be reduced to a misdemeanor after a year? Would that reduction still eliminate coverage?
The fact is that Bay Area motorists are not usually charged with a crime for fatal pedestrian accidents or fatal bicycle accidents. As I discussed in a previous article, jurors often unconsciously relate to an accused driver. Bicycle accidents rarely cause injury to anyone other than the bicyclist. And if a bicyclist strikes a pedestrian, this almost never causes a fatality. This distinction is relevant to intent since how many bicycle riders believe they even have a likelihood of causing harm if they mess up?
I am not the only one who is surprised that 37-year-old Bucchere entered a plea of Guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter for striking and killing 71-year-old Sutchi Hui who was at a crosswalk. This guilty plea last week is the first of its kind in the U.S., but the prosecutor’s allegations have never been really tested before jurors. And Mr. Bucchere’s attorneys have never made a statement admitting that Bucchere actually ran the red light. Although cyclists in the past have received misdemeanor manslaughter convictions, this was a felony manslaughter case and the first of its kind, but the result was a settlement.
Bucchere is a Stanford University-educated technology consultant and lifelong cyclist who trained others in bicycle safety and was on the way home from a two-hour ride to Marin county at the time of the fatal pedestrian accident. His posting after the crash and before Mr. Hui succumbed to his injuries was insensitive and may have been the spark that actually caused the criminal charges to be filed. And what about all the hoopla about Strava? If the Strava data supported the prosecutor’s case, wouldn’t we have heard a lot more about that?
The Hui family has filed a civil lawsuit against Bucchere seeking to make Bucchere financially accountable and I hope we learn the outcome. Because the criminal case was settled before it went to trial, we must now await the result of the civil case.
Will the San Francisco bicycling community pay a little closer attention to traffic laws now? Most likely some cyclists will be more careful temporarily. Will pedestrians walking the city streets be more cautious now because of this plea bargain? Probably not. What we have to learn is that we all share the roads and we need to take more care to avoid conflicts between bicyclists and pedestrians or between motorists and bicyclists or pedestrians. We all need to drive or ride or walk defensively, not allowing distraction, and we need to cut others a break. My hope is that this case will not widen the gap between bicycle riders and walkers. Bicyclists are not the enemy. Carelessness and arrogance are the enemies, and accountability is still the key.