Cutting through the confusion — LAPD clarifies why driver wasn’t cited in last week’s right hook wreck

Call it a case of miscommunication.

Last week’s failure to ticket the driver who right hooked Melanie Freeland as she biked to work — despite being witnessed by two police officers — quickly went from bad to worse.

As Freeland questioned why the driver wasn’t ticketed for failing to signal and yield the right-of-way as required by law, it quickly devolved into a desk officer arguing with her and refusing to put through her call to the bike liaison for the Central Traffic Division.

And led to an explanation from the Watch Commander on duty at the time of the collision that made it appear that most police officers are prohibited from writing traffic tickets, even if they witness the incident.

Or maybe not.

That bike liaison in question, LAPD Central Traffic Division’s Sgt. Laszlo Sandor, went to great lengths to clarify matters at last night’s regularly scheduled bike liaison meeting, which evolved from the department’s long-standing bike task force.

First off, the officers who witnessed the collision could have written a ticket on the spot. The reason they didn’t wasn’t that they didn’t have specific training in traffic law, as Freeland had understood from the Watch Commander’s explanation. It was that they were due in court, and had to hand the case off to someone else to avoid the wrath of an angry judge.

Or worse, having their case dismissed.

Secondly, Freeland reported that the Watch Commander had described a Catch 22 that would seem to prevent most patrol officers from writing a ticket in virtually any situation.

She stated that in order for a traffic citation to be issued two criteria must be met. An LAPD officer must witness the incident and be trained in traffic laws (taken the special course in traffic). Because the [traffic officer] didn’t witness the incident it did not meet the two criteria. Secondly, the officer who did witness the incident is not trained in traffic laws, so again it does not meet the criteria.

In other words, as she understood it, in order to issue a ticket at the scene, an officer must 1) actually witness the infraction, and 2) have specialized training in traffic investigations.

Which counts out the overwhelming majority of officers on the street.

Well, almost.

As Sgt. Sandor explained, there are two ways a driver — or a bike rider or pedestrian, for that matter — can be held accountable for an infraction.

The first is the one we’re all familiar with.

Someone commits an infraction, like running a red light, for instance. An officer sees it, fires up the lights and sirens, and tickets the violator on the spot.

Or in this case, can write a ticket after actually witnessing a collision. Which these officers could have done, but didn’t, for the reason explained above.

The second way is what the Watch Commander evidently tried, and failed, to explain. A driver can be ticketed after the fact if the investigating officer can conclusively determine what actually happened based on witness statements and the evidence at the scene.

But in order to do that, the officer must have specialized training in traffic investigations.

So any officer can write a ticket for any infraction they witness. Or an officer with specialized traffic investigation training can write a ticket or make an arrest after the fact, based on the totality of evidence.

In addition, there are two ways a driver can be held accountable for an infraction.

Again, he or she can be ticketed or arrested, depending on the severity of the infraction. Or the investigating officer can find the driver at fault in the traffic report, in which case the driver won’t face a fine or jail time, but will be charged points against his or her license by the DMV.

That appears to be what happened in Freeland’s case.

So justice was, apparently, won, despite a full week’s worth of aggravation and confusion.

The officers at the meeting suggested that, in some ways, it’s better to have the driver found at fault and have points charged by the DMV, since, unlike a ticket, it can’t be fought in court or dismissed if the officer is unable to attend the hearing.

Although if the driver is convicted, he will still have points charged against his or her license, as well as face additional penalties from the court.

As for the argument with the desk officer, Sgt. Sandor suggested that the officer was actually trying to help, since he — Sandor — was out of the office for several days.

But in the end, we all agreed that it would have been better to simply send the call to his voice mail, rather than appear to screen the bike liaison’s calls.

On the other hand, all of the department’s bike liaisons at the meeting agreed that email was the best way to contact them, rather than calling. Email leaves a written record of the conversation that they can refer to later. And they receive emails on work computers as well as on their personal devices, regardless of whether they are in the office.

And one more thing.

This morning I received an email from Melanie Freeland, who reported that she was back on her bike and once again riding to work, exactly one week after she was hit by the car.

Now that’s good news.

………

Thanks to Sgt. Sandor for looking into the matter and clarifying a very confusing situation. And thanks to the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s Colin Bogart, who worked with the LAPD and city officials to assist Freeland in this case.

The LACBC doesn’t often trumpet its victories or the work it does to help individual bike riders — perhaps to its detriment.

But as in the case above, I’ve often witnessed their staff members fighting behind the scenes for the rights of bike riders, whether collectively or on an individual basis. And whether or not they’re members of the coalition.

It’s an organization I’m proud to support and be a part of.

Meanwhile, writing on LA Streetsblog, an LA attorney offers advice on what to do if the police fail to adequately respond to a collision.

8 comments

  1. Cynthia C. says:

    Yay, finally a happy ending. It could have been happier, but at least there was some justice :)

  2. Biker395 says:

    “… unlike a ticket, it can’t be fought in court or dismissed if the officer is unable to attend the hearing”

    That’s kind of disturbing, no? It sounds like a violation of due process.

    • bikinginla says:

      It would be, except that any action taken against a driver’s license is an administrative process, rather than a legal matter.

      Despite what the courts sometimes seem to believe, no one has a legal right to drive. Your license can be granted, suspended or revoked without legal oversight or intervention.

      • Anonymous says:

        The U.S. Supreme Court disagrees: “Suspension of issued licenses thus involves state action that adjudicates important interests of the licensees. In such cases, the licenses are not to be taken away without that procedural due process required by the Fourteenth Amendment. This is but an application of the general proposition that relevant constitutional restraints limit state power to terminate an entitlement whether the entitlement is denominated a ‘right’ or a ‘privilege.’” Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535 (1971) (internal citations omitted).

        This requirement for procedural due process is met in California by the right to an administrative hearing before the DMV (Vehicle Code section 13950), by the DMV’s administrative review of the hearing officer’s decision (Vehicle Code section 14105.5), and by the right of appeal to the courts (Vehicle Code sections 13559 and 14400).

  3. I kind of thought from the beginning that the witnessing officers probably had to move along because of their court case. Glad you got to the bottom of all this.

  4. MFree says:

    Thank you Ted for the explanation and summary and to Colin for his work on the incident as well! I can’t thank you enough!

  5. […] LAPD Explains What Happened in the Case of Melanie Freeland (Biking in L.A.) […]

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