San Francisco prosecutors have declined to file a vehicular manslaughter charge against a big-rig driver who allegedly hit and killed a 24-year-old woman riding her bicycle to work in SoMa last summer — a case that led to an apology and promise of reform from Police Chief Greg Suhr after a sloppy investigation initially blamed the victim.
Amelie Le Moullac was pedaling eastbound on Folsom Street just before Sixth Street on the morning of Aug. 14, 2013 when the right-turning truck driven by Gilberto Alcantar struck her. Police faulted Le Moullac for her death until a San Francisco Bike Coalition staffer discovered surveillance video of the crash at a nearby auto shop.
After watching the video, investigators concluded Alcantar was to blame for making an unsafe turn into the bike lane, killing the young public relations professional. Despite that key piece of evidence, prosecutors ultimately felt it wasn’t enough to convince a jury.
“Unfortunately, with the evidence presented, we are unable to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Alex Bastian, a spokesman for San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.
Micha Liberty, an attorney for the Le Moullac family, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Alcantar and Milipitas-based distributor Daylight Foods. She said the family was disappointed and heartbroken that charges aren’t being filed, and that Alcantar wasn’t issued a ticket.
“After reviewing the evidence that we have, looking at the video of the incident, it’s really hard for this grieving family to understand how a driver can do what he did without receiving even a slap on the wrist for a minor violation of the vehicle code,” Liberty said.
Brent Anderson, a Denver-based attorney representing Alcantar and Daylight Foods, said he could not comment on the case because of the lawsuit, but “our sincere sympathies go out to Ms. Le Moullac’s family.”
Bike and pedestrian advocates say the missteps in the Le Moullac case are typical of police investigations into collisions involving drivers who kill or injure bicyclists and pedestrians.
That troubling trend, advocates say, was also exposed when SFPD Sgt. Richard Ernst showed up at the crash site during during a memorial and safe streets rally for Le Moullac a week after her death. According to the bike coalition, Ernst blamed Le Moullac for the crash. He parked his unit in the bike lane and said he was there to prove a point — that bicyclists need to go to the left of right-turning vehicles.
At a City Hall hearing early this year, Suhr acknowledged mistakes were made and apologized for Ernst's remarks.
“Unfortunately, the Le Moullac case is par for the course when it comes to the combined lack of follow-up and serious attention bicycle cases are handled with by the S.F. Police Department and District Attorney’s Office,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition.
“It is serious cause for concern that no charges were filed in any of the four cases of people being hit and killed while biking last year,” Shahum added.
In a recent interview, Gascón would not discuss the Le Moullac case but said decisions about whether to charge in these kinds of fatal collisions are predicated on the investigations. The police department decides whether to present a case to the DA’s office for prosecution based on probable cause.
Last year, a total of 25 pedestrians and bicyclists were hit and killed by drivers, the highest number since 2007. The police department presented nine vehicular manslaughter cases to the DA's office. Of those, six drivers were charged.
“If the driver was the one at fault and there is a death, then we have a prosecutable case and we look at the evidence and whether we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt,” Gascón said.
But it can get complicated, he explained, because there are often many pieces of evidence that are sometimes contradictory. That’s one reason why Gascón wants to create a new vehicular manslaughter unit to take on these types of cases.
“These are incidents that increasingly require very specialized understanding of the law as well as a very specialized understanding of the evidence,” Gascón said. The unit would include a paralegal and investigator who can work with police “to round out the investigation.”
Suhr, meanwhile, said he’s working with his officers to improve evidence-gathering, including video.
“Obviously, video is very important, and there’s a lot of it these days," Suhr said. "So, we want to make sure we get it.”
Bike and pedestrian advocates say the police department needs to make a cultural shift, and there are some signs that’s happening. Both Suhr and Gascón back Vision Zero, the city's goal to achieve zero traffic deaths within 10 years.
Suhr has changed the department’s policy of not citing drivers in fatal cases. Now, if the district attorney doesn’t prosecute a case where a driver is found to be at fault, Suhr said his department will go back and issue a ticket.
“We just want to get it right,” Suhr said.
The language that police use is also changing. In the past, police often classified pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities as tragic accidents, which implied they could not have been prevented. Now it’s official SFPD policy to call them collisions.
It’s all a start, according to advocates, that they hope will lead to better investigations and justice for victims like Amelie Le Moullac.