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.

Our Santa Monica weekly column is supported by Bike Center in Santa Monica.

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.

Instead, Martin was charged with a felony count of assault with a deadly weapon. And pleaded guilty on May 31st of this year, sentenced to three years felony probation and 30 days community service.

……..

“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?”

Probably, yes.

We’re not saying the SMPD targets cyclist, but they did ticket Santa for riding “too far to the left” in 2008. Photo: ##http://www.bikesidela.org/santa-monica-amends-bike-licensing-law/##Gary Kavanagh

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.

According to Daniel J. Jimenez, the attorney familiarly known as Dj Wheels within the local bicycling community, police set up stings for traffic violations all the time.

“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.”

We’re not saying SMPD has a history of ticketing cyclists for bogus infractions, but this cyclist was ticketed for not having “front facing lights.” I count two. Photo: Gary Kavanagh

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.

  • Anonymous

    It’s the selective enforcement that pisses me off. SMPD needs a comprehensive traffic enforcement plan: make the streets safe for drivers and cyclists, and then the sidewalks will be safe for pedestrians. This three months of focusing on cyclists isn’t going to do anything to encourage safer riding; it’s just going to get people to throw their hands in the air and say, “See! I tried, but the city doesn’t want to make it safe to ride!”

  • Eric W

    Ted –

    You’ve all missed why the city of Santa Monica is sensitive to people driving into crowds. Everybody will remember this bit of history: Several years ago a nice older gent mistook the accelerator for the brake of his car and plowed full tilt into the downtown Farmer’ Market. Lot’s of people were hurt or killed and many older drivers thought about “when is it time to stop driving”.

    As a sort of city unwritten policy, they do everything thay can do to prevent this from happening again. That’s history part of the job as a civic protector. That has brought us expensive temporary barriers that will stop a 4-ton car to the street corners at the ends of the market. This is what makes the city attorney keen to get a conviction for a cyclist riding into a crowd downtown.

    I note that the young cyclist plea bagained for no jail time, rather that go to court on a lessor charge. This is really grandstanding. A better defense lawyer might have talked the charge down to something that he could be convicted of, rather than this overcharge. The police really, really wanted to send a message about this kind of bad driving, even if it’s only a bicycle.

    I do think there’s some cultural aspect of this with bicycling replacing cars in traffic, but the primary motivation in Santa Monica is in traffic behavior, not cyclists.

    Eric W

  • Eric W

    Ted –

    You’ve all missed why the city of Santa Monica is sensitive to people driving into crowds. Everybody will remember this bit of history: Several years ago a nice older gent mistook the accelerator for the brake of his car and plowed full tilt into the downtown Farmer’ Market. Lot’s of people were hurt or killed and many older drivers thought about “when is it time to stop driving”.

    As a sort of city unwritten policy, they do everything thay can do to prevent this from happening again. That’s history part of the job as a civic protector. That has brought us expensive temporary barriers that will stop a 4-ton car to the street corners at the ends of the market. This is what makes the city attorney keen to get a conviction for a cyclist riding into a crowd downtown.

    I note that the young cyclist plea bagained for no jail time, rather that go to court on a lessor charge. This is really grandstanding. A better defense lawyer might have talked the charge down to something that he could be convicted of, rather than this overcharge. The police really, really wanted to send a message about this kind of bad driving, even if it’s only a bicycle.

    I do think there’s some cultural aspect of this with bicycling replacing cars in traffic, but the primary motivation in Santa Monica is in traffic behavior, not cyclists.

    Eric W

  • Ted Rogers (bikinginla)

    You’re right; the Farmer’s Market incident does explain, though not justify, the overzealous prosecution. Every violation — and violator — deserves to be judged on its own merits.

  • IRB

    It probably has more to do with the blatant disregard for the pedestrians and the willfull running of the redlight. It wasn’t a mistake or unintentional. It was willfull and for that reason the charges probably fit. If a driver had willfully run the redlight then my guess is we would be discussing manslaughter charges.

  • This is completely ridiculous. Assault is supposed to include intent to injure or at least endanger.

    He should be cited for running the red light and reckless driving involving injury. ADW makes no sense.

  • More likely though, we wouldn’t. Drivers are rarely charged for hitting a pedestrian.

  • Sheri

    I’ve had cyclists head straight for me on the sidewalk so I don’t have much sympathy for someone, in a bike or car, that was in a rush, for whatever reason aside from medical emergency, that injures someone out of sheer recklessness and impatience. My husband has been a cyclist for many years and recently had a person in a parked car open their door right in front of him without looking. The woman was more concerned with “who was going to fix her door” than with my husband who hit his head on the door, cracked his helmet and hit the ground on a main street. The only thing that probably saved his life was that it was Easter Sunday and the roads were light. The cyclist should have to pay for all unreimbursed medical expenses of the woman that he hit.

  • Law enforcement doesn’t get it

    “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.”

  • Wanderer

    There is nothing in all these indignant comments that suggests that the bicyclist should be charged with a lesser offense. It is very serious what he did, at one of the locations most heavily used by pedestrians in all of Southern California. The comments say to me that when an auto driver does something analogous, that driver should be charged with a similarly serious offense. If they are not, then the remedy is to increase the penalties on reckless drivers, not decrease them on reckless cyclists.

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