Saturday, January 07, 2006

Bill Bliss: Officer guilty of careless driving

From the Canon City Daily Record:


Publish Date: 1/6/2006

Officer guilty of careless driving

Alison Miller
Daily Record Staff Writer

Cañon City Police Officer Doug Havens was convicted Thursday night of careless driving in a June 2005 incident that killed cyclist Bill Bliss on Colo. 67, two miles north of Wetmore.

Havens was found innocent of the lesser charge of speeding.

Assistant District Attorney Cheyenne Ross built her case around Bliss’ advocacy for bicycling safety and expert accident reconstruction.

The victim’s longtime friend and fellow cyclist Russell Godfrey testified Bliss, a 69-year-old Californian, advocated and taught road safety to new cyclists. According to Godfrey, Bliss always wore a helmet and bright clothing, had triangle reflectors and followed traffic laws.

Godfrey had been on the cross country tour that began in Virginia and was to end in Oregon before Bliss was struck by Havens on June 24.

Havens, a rural Westcliffe resident, was off duty at the time.

Defense attorney Cindy Montgomery called Bliss’ safety into question during cross-examination. She said Bliss’ bike and physical condition contributed to the accident.

Testimony indicated the bike was loaded down with equipment and had perhaps been engineered to carry excess cargo. The bike was described by Godfrey as having smaller than average wheels and a rack carry-ing a tent, tools, sleeping bag and other supplies.

Godfrey also testified Bliss was blind in the left eye, which was later determined by the Fremont County Coroner Dorothy Twellman to most likely have affected Bliss’ peripheral vision and possibly affected his ability to see motorists.

The Bliss family, who came from California and Seattle to attend the trial, disputed claims he was unsafe and said Bliss was an extremely accomplished cyclist.

“Bill has been bicycling for 36 years,” said Bonnie Bliss, the victim’s widow. “He has over 300,000 bicy-cle miles. He’s a very proficient rider; he’s done most of those miles commuting in urban traffic in San Jose (Calif.).

“Of all the people in the nation, he is probably one of the people who have such a depth of understanding and depth of thinking in these types (road cycling) of situations,” Mrs. Bliss said.

The defense questioned whether Bliss actually had been following the rules of the road and claimed he was riding close to a foot from the center line instead of near the white line as required by law.

Montgomery supported the claim with testimony from rural postal carrier Amanda Withers who said she saw between 10 and 15 cyclists on the highway “far out in the road so that you had to get into the other lane to get past them.”

Montgomery outlined a series of events, arguing Havens came around a curve just south of mile marker 2 on Colo. 67 at legal speeds and his view was obstructed by a vehicle in front of him. She also said Bliss was riding where he should not have been and that Havens had no time to prevent the accident.

Jeffery Burke, an accident reconstruction specialist from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, testified Havens could not have been traveling more than 58 mph when he struck Bliss.

Burke said he personally drove Havens’ Ford truck around the curve attempting to reach 77 MPH and said the truck almost rolled. He said he was unable to reach the alleged speed Ross claimed Havens was travel-ing after coming out of the curve.

Burke also said at such high speeds it is impossible to see people when looking out the vehicle’s window, supporting the claim he was not speeding.

Rancher Chad Draper testified for the defense he was fixing a fence on his property and observed Havens driving. He said he and Havens waved to each other.

Draper also supported defense’s claims there had been another car ahead of Havens.

The prosecution’s expert witness gave a conflicting account of what he believed happened that day.

Mike Halpin, accident reconstruction specialist for the Colorado State Patrol, said he calculated Havens’ speed at 77 MPH in a 65 zone through calculations and measurements taken at the scene.

Halpin said skid marks, a scrape mark from the bicycle making impact with the road and Havens’ account of the accident gave him points of reference to reconstruct the accident.

According to Halpin, Havens probably came around the curve at high speeds, saw Bliss, had about 1.5 seconds reaction time, struck Bliss and applied the brakes.

The injuries sustained by Bliss were determined to be associated with Halpin’s account. Pictures of the deceased Bliss demonstrating such injuries were denied by Judge William Fox on grounds they were more inflammatory than probative.

Fox said the photos would evoke the sympathy that he himself admitted to having while viewing the pho-tos.

Evidence from the death certificate was admitted stating Bliss died from a substantial head injury caused by being struck by a motor vehicle.

Havens took the stand to give a personal account of the events and, upon cross-examination by Ross, a mistrial was almost granted after she asked Havens how many speeding tickets he has been issued. Havens admitted to one speeding ticket before Montgomery had the opportunity to object.

Prior acts are not allowed to be introduced into evidence, and Montgomery moved for a mistrial. Fox de-termined though Ross’ conduct was unacceptable, an instruction to the jury to not weigh the speeding ticket was more appropriate than to grant a mistrial.

The jury found that there was not enough evidence to convict Havens of speeding, but decided he was driving carelessly and caused Bliss’ death.

The misdemeanor carries a range of sentence options from fines and points on his license to jail time. A sentencing hearing was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. March 6.

According to CCPD Capt. Jim Cox, Havens is working and he knows of no plans to remove him from duty. Cox said the decision to keep or terminate Havens’ employment lies with City Administrator Steve Rabe, who had no comment.


Albany Lawyer said...

Shame to see that. As a speeding ticket lawyer, I defend a lot of cases. None like this so far. I'm generally sympathetic to speeders, but not when there are bicyclists or pedestrians around, or other factors suggesting speed should be lower.

And while I'm sympathetic to the defendant in this case, it does seem he got off very light.

It's also striking to see what looks like favorable treatment for a cop defendant. In particular, the judge not letting the photos in. I've seen many cases where evidence like this is admitted. But that's when the defendants are not cops. Usually poor black and hispanic males.

I agree that the prior speeding ticket was not an appropriate question. At the same time, I'm shocked that a cop would even get a speeding ticket. Around here it seems like a badge is a pass to drive as fast as you want. Few cops will write another cop a ticket.

Sony Ericsson Takes Over Title said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Traffic Ticket Toronto said...

Being a Traffic Ticket paralegal I see all types of injustices within the justice system. In Ontario, our judges are justices of the peace and don't always have legal training. it makes for a joke of a court room sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't seem very safe to me to ride a bicycle in the middle of the road that has a 65 mph speed limit and no shoulder. In fact, it seems like reckless endangerment. I am an avid cyclist and would never put myself or drivers of vehicles in an obviously dangerous situation. How is driving the speed limit and not being able to stop in time for an unexpected danger in the road in any way reckless.

Steve Sloan said...

Two of the commenters here posted Anonymously. Notice I am not doing that. I have two reasons for saying I doubt you know what you are talking about. That is the first. If you had personal knowledge of the case why would you post Anonymously?

Second, "The jury ... decided he (the driver was driving carelessly and caused Bliss’ death." Why do you not believe that? (I go back to reason one.) The defense claimed Bliss was riding in the center of the street. That CLAIM was apparently not substatiated by the jury.

Last, I knew Bill. He was not only one of the safest cyclists I knew and was a teacher of bicycle safety. It does not sound like the person who hit him had such a stellar background.