Sheriffs Blame Cyclist Victim in OC Road Rage Bottle-Throwing Incident

Screen capture showing Gatorade bottle thrown at cyclist. Source: Youtube

Screen capture showing Gatorade bottle thrown at cyclist. Source: Youtube

On May 31, 2014, Bryan Larsen was bicycling on a crowded stretch of Pacific Coast Highway in south Orange County. He began to notice a pattern of harassment by the occupants of a large white 4×4 Ram Truck, with Texas Virginia license plate “TX 65-500.” When passing cyclists, the truck would spew thick black coal-rolling exhaust.

Larsen got out his phone and began to record video. He then captured this road rage incident.  The truck swerved out of the car lane toward Larsen, who was riding in the bike lane. The truck slowed and its passenger threw a bottle full of Gatorade at the cyclist. When Larsen held his phone up and shouted that he had captured the incident on video, the truck blasted more exhaust and drove away.

In a television interview, Larsen describes the incident:

I was in a lot of fear. They came into the bike lane. The tires were as big as I was and I thought they were going to run me over.

Larsen posted the video online and reported the incident, submitting the evidence to the Orange County Sheriffs Department.

OCSD responded that they were investigating, but stated that there really was nothing law enforcement could do, since even though it was caught on video, no sheriff had actually been present to eye-witness to the incident.

Meanwhile, the video went viral. The incident was reported in local media. Larsen approached Arizona-based advocacy organization Look! Save A Life which produced an annotated version of the video, slowing down and clarifying what occurred. Just over a month passed with no response from OCSD.

On July 7, Look! Save A Life published this Open Letter to the Orange County Sheriffs Department. The letter was also shared widely.

The next day, the OC Sheriffs finally responded.

But not quite in the way cyclists expected.

OCSD stated that they will not be charging the truck’s driver. They may charge the passenger with assault and battery for throwing the bottle.

And the kicker: OCSD plans to charge cyclist Bryan Larsen for shouting obscenities. On the video, Larsen can be heard stating “do that f—ing on video right now!”

According to the Orange County Register:

Charges are also being recommended against the bicyclist, [OCSD Lieutenant Jeff Hallock] said, who is suspected of using “offensive words in public, likely to provoke a violent reaction.” Officials suspect the cyclist made “rude, disparaging comments” before the incident was recorded on his cellphone, Hallock said.

It is a sad, ironic double standard. OC sheriffs had declined to prosecute life-threatening road rage because they had not actually witnessed it. But they are willing to charge this cyclist for words they didn’t actually hear.

Bicycling in L.A.‘s Ted Rogers sums up the Orange County Sheriffs’ response well:

[T]he US Supreme Court has repeatedly held that offensive language and gestures are protected as free speech under the 1st Amendment. [...] Hallock makes it clear investigators are only assuming that Larson said something so offensive as to justify a violent attack with a deadly weapon.

As if anything could.

Would they still feel the driver was justified if he had pulled out a gun and started shooting at the cyclist? Legally, there’s no difference; only the choice of weapon used.

And never mind what actually precipitated the event. [Larsen] was clearly responding to something the driver had done before the camera started recording.

What, we may never know, since the threat of criminal charges will now force him to remain silent. Which is probably the real intent.

Legally, there’s no valid case against him. So the question becomes, why is the OCSD trying so hard to intimidate the victim of a violent crime — while letting the primary perpetrator off scott-free?

And what does it say to every other bike rider south of the Orange Curtain when even video evidence isn’t good enough to get the authorities to give a damn about our safety — let alone threaten us for reporting it?

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and her department are sending a clear message to everyone who travels by two wheels that we remain second-class citizens in her jurisdiction.

Unfortunately the Sheriffs’ response to this road rage incident shows that they still practice outdated windshield-perspective policing. When drivers commit dangerous, life-threatening actions, sheriffs look the other way. When cyclists and pedestrians are threatened in road rage incidents, it is their own fault.

Many municipalities are embracing Vision Zero. Law enforcement agencies, including the SFPD, are working to align law enforcement practices to prioritize safety by minimizing traffic deaths and injuries. Hopefully, this incident, and the unwanted attention it has brought to OCSD practices, will spur awareness and reform.