Sheboygan County Dist. Atty. Joe DeCecco filed a felony charge Friday against a 67-year-old man who crashed into and killed a bicyclist on County Highway Y on June 6.
The motorist, Roger Peterson, failed to pay attention, didn’t see a group of bicyclists ahead of him and plowed into them on a flat road with good visibility, DeCecco said. Somebody died as a result.
“That, in my opinion, is negligence,” DeCecco said. “We’re going to charge that every time. People have a right to feel safe and secure when they’re engaged in these activities.”
Read the rest of Tom Held’s post on his blog The Active Pursuit
DeCecco’s decision runs contrary to those made by District Attorney’s in other well-publicized fatal bicycle crashes. For instance Waukesha County Dist. Atty. Brad Schimel recently declined to issue criminal charges against a 21-year-old who claimed to have fallen asleep at the wheel when his car drifted across the centerline and killed Bob Gunderson riding his bicycle on Woods Rd. in Muskego last July. Schimel also did not charge the man who claimed the sun was in his eyes when he drove his car into and killed Jeff Littmann in 2011. In both cases Schimel argued the burden of proof for criminal negligence was too high and so he did not have a reasonable chance of proving his case.
Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Greg Huebner made a similar decision not to charges when an 18-year-old man claimed he “blacked out” last July and his car crossed the centerline and killed 56-year-old Sam Ferrito while he was riding his bicycle. The consequences for killing this innocent man were tickets for two moving violations: reckless driving and crossing the centerline.
“It is a terrible tragedy, and that was my first inclination,” Huebner explained to be of his decision not to seek further charges, “but I just did not believe I had the evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. And I spent a lot of time with this case. I even ran it past a number of other attorneys and they all agreed with my decision. If he had been going 20 over or something, it would have been a whole different ball game.”
Vehicular Homicide, or more properly homicide by negligent operation of a motor vehicle as defined by Wisconsin state statute, is a felony, and is predicated on proving the driver was “criminally negligent.” Criminal negligence is a much higher standard and very difficult to prove. Sadly, the most common example of simple negligence I could find was “ordinary negligence occurs when a person fails to exercise ordinary care, such as if a person is driving a car and changing the radio station at the same time.” Criminal negligence means reasonable people would believe that a the actions that caused the crime create a substantial and unreasonable risk of death or great bodily harm to another.
Clearly, Sheboygan County Dist. Atty. DeCecco has a different view of his chances in court. Peterson will appear in court on Monday to face the charges of charges of homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle, a felony carrying a 10-year maximum sentence, and negligent driving causing injury, a misdemeanor punishable by one year in jail. The Bike Fed will watch this case with great interest. If the jury does find Peterson guilty, the Bike Fed would certainly advocate that other District Attorneys take a much more aggressive approach in cases where, through carelessness or distracted driving, a person in a motor vehicle kills an innocent, more vulnerable road user like someone riding a bicycle or walking.
Of the nine people killed in crashes this year, seven were the fault of the person in the motor vehicle. With DeCecco’s announcement today, only four of those seven have been charged with felony offenses.