A reckless rider pleads guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. But does that say more about the city that charged him than the cyclists that ride there?
Yes, bike riders are subject to the same laws drivers are.
Maybe Santa Monica police and prosecutors wanted to send that message loud and clear. Maybe they wanted to make an example of one reckless cyclist so other bicyclists would straighten up and ride right.
But to do it, they slapped a reckless, red light running rider with a felony charge no driver, however dangerous, is likely to face in a similar situation.
And sent a message that maybe Santa Monica isn’t as bike-friendly as it claims to be.
According to Santa Monica police, Rocky Martin was trying to catch up to a group of fellow riders on Santa Monica Blvd on June 24th of last year when he blew through a red light at the popular Third Street Promenade, weaving dangerously through a crowd of pedestrians crossing with the light.
Until he collided with a woman walking with her family, knocking her down and seriously injuring her.
Make no mistake. He deserved to be charged for his actions, just as a driver who ran a red light and injured a pedestrian should be. If we expect motorists to be held responsible for their actions behind the wheel, we have to assume the same responsibility.
But in most cases, the driver would only face charges for running the light, or maybe distracted driving.
“If we as cyclists are going to break the rules, we have to be accountable for putting a more vulnerable section of the population at risk,” said Cynthia Rose, Director of the bike advocacy group Santa Monica Spoke.
“But we have to talk about equity,” she continued. “This seems unprecedented.”
Orange County bike lawyer David Huntsman, himself a former competitive cyclist, agrees.
“I have never heard of a comparatively negligent motor vehicle driver being charged with ADW. ‘Comparative’ being the key word, because you can’t compare the hazard a motorist poses with the hazard a cyclist poses. Even the gentlest nudge from cars can kill; not so with bikes.”
Eric Bruins, Policy and Planning Director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, compared it to the Mandeville Canyon case where an angry driver was convicted of deliberately trying to injure two cyclists. “I have never heard of a charge like that where there wasn’t a road rage element involved.”
Yet no one has suggested that Martin deliberately targeted his victim, or set out to hurt anyone.
As it turns out, though, intent isn’t required for a charge of assault with a deadly weapon.
“You don’t have to intend to cause harm,” clarified Pasadena-based bicycle attorney Thomas Forsyth. “Only use force or instrument likely to cause serious bodily harm to another. This is one of those instances where criminal law and civil/negligence law overlap. The cyclist only need ‘intend’ to run the red light with the likelihood that doing so would result in serious bodily injury to a pedestrian.”
On the other hand, few would consider a bike a deadly weapon, when a car is far more likely to cause serious harm.
“When drivers are negligent and injure or kill a cyclist, are they charged with ‘assault with a deadly weapon?’ asked Bicycling and the Law author and Bicycling Magazine columnist Bob Mionske in response to this case.
“Not that I’ve ever heard of. Often, they are coddled with ‘it was just an accident.’ And often, law enforcement bends over backwards to shift the blame to the cyclist, when it is crystal clear that the driver was breaking the law. I have seen this happen many, many times.”
“There has to be an equity in enforcement and prosecution,” said Rose. “As you know, we can’t get the courts to prosecute when we get hurt by these two-ton vehicles. Had this happened with any other kind of vehicle, there could have been multiple deaths.”
Or as Huntsman put it, “It’s not the injury but the recklessness that matters. I know many ‘lucky’ cyclists who have been relatively uninjured after being struck by negligent drivers; the drivers were not charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Does the pedestrian or cyclist have to go to a trauma center before ADW charges are filed against a reckless driver? Does it have to happen on a Third Street Promenade full of shocked shoppers and tourists before charges are filed against a reckless driver?”
Then there’s another matter touched on in the articles about the Martin case.
Rose, who frequently works closely with the City of Santa Monica and the city’s police department, says the department focuses on a different traffic problem every month. And according to SMPD Sgt. Richard Lewis, that focus will be on violations by bike riders from July through September.
That three-month targeting of bike riders seems a little extreme to her.
And it sounds a lot like selective enforcement.
In meetings with the bike task force, the Los Angeles Police Department has repeatedly made it clear that they can’t target specific groups of road users, such as motorists or bike riders. Instead, they have to focus on specific locations or violations, and ticket anyone who breaks the law, regardless of mode of travel.
For instance, they might station officers at a problematic intersection, and pull over anyone who violates any law in some manner. Or they might direct their focus on red light or crosswalk violations, and stop anyone who doesn’t observe the law, regardless of whether they’re driving, riding or walking.
What they can’t do, they insist, is target their enforcement towards any specific group, whether that’s bike riders or Seventh Day Adventists.
Evidently, Santa Monica police disagree.
“As cycling becomes more popular,” said Huntsman, “we will see more of the injustices usually dished out on the rest of society directed toward cyclists. For example, the SMPD targeting cyclists as opposed to targeting violations is our version of the infamous DWB (‘Driving While Brown”) syndrome where minorities have been statistically more likely to get pulled over for traffic infractions than whites.”
Bruins puts it this way. “There is a need for enforcement strategies that focus on the greatest harm. Instead of responding to complaints, they should be looking at their crime and traffic stats to determine where their resources will do the most good.”
And that isn’t likely to be going after bicyclists, however reckless or annoying they may sometimes be.
“Nothing wrong with that. And like the LAPD says, they target the violations first. But these stings are reactionary. The community complains, police react. People complain about motorists not yielding to pedestrians, pedestrians jaywalking… so they set up an officer at the scene to catch those violators.”
“It would be interesting to see if SMPD chooses to purposefully ignore violations by motorists when they are out there cracking down on scofflaw cyclists. It would be even more interesting if someone were to catch this on video.”
Cynthia Rose sums it up this way.
“If we want to be an equitable bike-friendly city, enforcement needs to coupled with education. We need the police to join us in that education; starting a crackdown on bicyclists will not give us the environment we need to move forward.”
“New bicyclists need equitable enforcement, as well. Don’t tell us it’s too dangerous to ride on a road, but instead, give us the guidance we need to ride safely on that road.”
And there’s one other problem.
Santa Monica has made great progress in recent years in cementing its reputation for bike-friendliness; just this week one website named them the 5th most bikable community in the U.S.
And the city takes justifiable pride in their recent elevation to a silver level Bicycle-Friendly Community.
But can any community truly be considered bike friendly when cyclists have to ride in fear of being targeted for the smallest infraction? Or facing criminal charges for actions most motorists could expect to be written off as a mere accident, worthy of a relatively minor traffic violation at most?
In response to that question, Lucy Dyke, Deputy Director of Special Projects for the City of Santa Monica, pointed out all the city is doing to promote bicycling and bike safety.
“The City of Santa Monica is concerned about the safety of all road users, especially bicyclists and pedestrians who are more physically vulnerable to crashes than people driving. Enforcement is part of the mix, but Santa Monica strongly supports bicyclists with education, encouragement and engineering: the City has its own Bike Campus (with online video curriculum), it offers free classes to the public, free secure parking at the Bike Center, and has more than doubled the bikeway and parking facilities since a Bike Action Plan was adopted in November, 2011.”
“This past year Santa Monica hosted a Family Bike Fest and Kidical Mass ride. It has now securely parked over 150,000 bicycles, free of charge, through the bike valet program. The City Council knows that getting more bikes on the street improves bike safety, and the City encourages people on bikes through our Bike Center programs, bike-friendly street projects, and, next year, a bikeshare system.”
No argument from me.
As someone who rides through Santa Monica at least a couple times a week, I’ve seen the city transform itself in recent years. And even apologized for criticizing its earlier selection as a bronze level Bicycle Friendly Community.
Despite being one of the most cautiously law-abiding bike riders you’re likely to meet, though, I find myself questioning whether I want to ride in a city where the police apparently plan to put me under a microscope.
Don’t get me wrong.
Virtually every time I ride through Santa Monica, or any other city, I see serious violations by bike riders who could, and probably should, be written up or at least stopped and given a warning.
But I also see far more — and more serious — violations by motorists. If only because there are far more motorists on the streets than there are bike riders.
And I am far less afraid of my fellow cyclists than I am the countless cars and trucks that surround us.
Note: The Santa Monica Police Department did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story before it was posted online.
Bike lawyer and Bicycling columnist Bob Mionske offers some interesting insights not included here; you can read his full comments at bikinginla.com.