Last week I met with an assistant district attorney in Santa Clara County to better understand how the office decides to prosecute in incidents that involve bicyclists.

Some new things that I learned:
In a collision between a vehicle and a bicycle, it is only considered a crime if 1) There is a resultant fatality or 2) There is an injury that involves gross negligence or reckless driving by the motorist.

There are three levels of negligence:

  • Regular negligence usually involves the violation of one or two vehicle code violations. It is a failure to behave as a reasonable person would in the same situation. This can be the basis for a civil case.
  • Gross negligence is usually more than two vehicle code violations but is on a sliding scale considered on a case-by-case basis. Gross, or criminal, negligence is evident when an individual fails to see the increased risk that would result from their action(s), to a point that it is different than what an ordinary person would perceive in the same situation.
  • Reckless driving is the hardest to show. It involves a person driving in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property. This would require, for example, a motorist who was fleeing police (already a felony) to commit three vehicle code violations to be considered reckless.

Both criminal and civil cases can be brought in a specific incident; the two are not mutually exclusive.

  • The district attorney’s office prosecutes criminal cases, not civil ones. As written above, a criminal case is only suitable when there is gross negligence or reckless driving that caused the injury. In criminal cases, it must be proved beyond reasonable doubt that a crime was committed, and all twelve jurors must agree.
  • If a collision involves an injury as the result of regular negligence, then a civil case can be brought against the person who allegedly caused the incident. A civil case allows for a lower burden of proof so that only a preponderance of the evidence is required (meaning that it is more likely than not). In addition, only a majority of jurors have to agree.

In many cases, the D.A.’s office is unable to bring any charges because it can’t be proved that a driver violated a vehicle code section or behaved in a criminally negligent way. Additionally, if no one has seen the victim prior to the accident, it is impossible to determine where exactly he or she was in the road.

In summary, the law is complex. It may strike us as unfair when a motorist is not charged after a collision; however, this decision is the result of a process meant to sort out the exact events and violations that occurred.