What We Learned – When Crashes Occur

Following the sentencing of the man who killed Anthony Saluto, BikeWalkKC wanted to understand the process through which a case like this is approached. We’re an advocacy organization, not a law firm or victim’s rights agency, so it helped for us to reach out to those who work in that realm to get a better grasp of what happens when there crashes occur. Knowing a little more about the process is helpful for a number of reasons, including:

  • Helping BikeWalkKC to be versed enough to provide resources when we are contacted by victims and their families,
  • Knowing who to reach out to when questions arise, and
  • Identifying gaps in the process that can potentially be addressed by legislative or policy changes.

The following explanation provides a brief overview of what happens when a crash involving a cyclist or pedestrian is investigated and prosecuted in Jackson County, MO:

When a crash occurs, a patrol officer is typically the first person to arrive on the scene. Upon their arrival, the officer will make a determination of who else needs to be contacted, including an ambulance, the traffic investigation section, and the prosecutor. If warranted, tickets are usually issued at the scene of the crash, but they can also be issued after the fact.

If there is a fatality, the officers on the scene will request a blood draw of the driver and a search warrant for the vehicle involved. Additionally, the prosecutor will be contacted from the scene to determine what else may need to take place at that time. While this is happening, an officer will be designated to provide notification to the next of kin. That officer will typically remain the point of contact for the family for the duration of the investigation; however, they will not release pertinent information on the investigation until the case has been handed over to the prosecutor.

Once the initial aspects of the crash have been evaluated, the bulk of the investigation will be carried out by the Traffic Investigation Unit (TIU) of the Kansas City Police Department. The investigation involves examining a host of different factors such as interviews with those involved and witnesses, determining who is at fault, and reconstructing the crash site. Once the investigation has been conducted (a process which typically takes about four months), the case will be submitted to the prosecutor’s office.

The police can provide “probable cause statements” to further inform the prosecutor, but the ultimate decision of whether or not the case will lead to a court of law lies with the prosecutor. The probable cause statement details whether or not the investigators believe there is probable cause to prosecute the case as a crime. They are required to submit such a statement in every case.

The prosecutor’s office will rely upon all of the information collected over the course of the investigation to make the final determination as to whether or not charges should be filed. It is important to note that prosecutors are not directly involved in the investigation. However, prosecutors can and will give guidance on additional evidence that may be needed to make a decision in the case, if necessary. Much of what was discussed in our meeting with the prosecutor’s office was within the context of crashes involving driving under the influence.

In a crash involving a cyclist or pedestrian where the driver was intoxicated, Jackson County prosecutors tend to rely upon one of two current laws:

  1. Intoxication that leads to a deadly crash
  2. Negligent driving which leads to voluntary or involuntary manslaughter

Regardless of the law that is used, the facts of the case have to fit the statutes. One of the facts that prosecutors try to evaluate when determining which charges to pursue in these cases is whether or not the substance in question was used to excess, not necessarily whether or not it was legal to use.

An outstanding issue for Jackson County prosecutors, and prosecutors across the country, is the difficulty of prosecuting cases involving drivers who have marijuana in their system at the time of the crash. While Colorado appears to be the only state at the moment with a definitive threshold for “pot intoxication”, it is likely that such a change in Missouri statutes will take more evidence of what pot intoxication looks like.

In the case of a crash that leads to a fatality, the eventual decision of whether or not a case should be filed and prosecuted is decided by a group known as the “Homicide Committee”. This committee is composed of senior level officials who hear the cases that have been referred by law enforcement. Based on the evidence presented, they will decide whether or not a case should be prosecuted.

If it is decided that no charges will be filed, a joint meeting will be held between prosecutors and the family of the victim to explain the decision and provide options for what may happen next. Law enforcement officials may or may not attend these meetings, depending on the circumstances.

In speaking with all these people, we were able to identify steps we can take to potentially improve the process for ourselves and those who investigate these crimes. They include:

Education – In speaking with everyone involved, a common theme emerged: a lack of knowledge about bicycle and pedestrian safety. While we can all agree that cyclists need to be safe when riding and pedestrians need to be safe when walking, it became apparent to us that there could be opportunities to inform police, legislators, the media, and the general public about what that looks like. One proposed solution is to develop media tools that can be deployed for such use. We will work with our partners to identify ways to not only create this media, but distribute it in a way that is most effective.

Transparency – Something that would benefit BikeWalkKC a great deal when these incidents occur is being able to place them within a greater context. Having access to more data would be incredibly helpful in terms of painting a clearer picture of what the failures of the built environment are, as well as what may be the best intervention to stop those incidents from occurring. In speaking with police, we learned more about ways to access some parts of the data, but we still believe that a push for greater overall transparency is warranted.

Support – Finally, we hope to use this information to help victims and families when these crashes occur. We are now better equipped to explain the process and who to talk to for more details. We better understand how to enable a family to share the truth of their pain without jeopardizing an investigation. But we will also have guides to show people how to access the information they want for civil cases and other purposes.

BikeWalkKC has learned a great deal from the conversations we had with lawyers, police, and prosecutors. We believe we can now provide some clarity to those who find themselves navigating this daunting, oftentimes confusing ordeal. We also have a clearer idea of what needs to be done to improve the systems we collectively rely upon to bring justice as well as what preventative policy changes should look like. We know that having this newfound knowledge cannot change what has happened or bring back those who have lost their lives to crashes, but it can serve those who remain and inform efforts to make the changes that could ultimately save a life.

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