Another Murder by Car, Another Slap on the Wrist
Three years ago, Spencer Freeman Smith was living in San Ramon and working in San Francisco as a labor attorney. After a night of drinking with a paralegal, he got in his car, drove towards his home, and ran over Bo Hu, a 57-year-old financial advisor visiting from China, on Dougherty Road in Dublin. Hu was either riding or walking his bike.
Smith didn’t stop or call 911. He just drove home, leaving Hu to die on the side of the road. He parked his damaged Mercedes in his garage. Police tracked him down from car parts on the scene.
Long story short, Smith’s punishment came down a couple of weeks ago: he will spend thirty days in jail after a year of probation—meaning there’s a good chance he’ll never actually go to jail. In the meantime, he keeps driving.
Oh yeah, and Smith only has one eye. Apparently it’s legal to drive with only one eye in California. The defense even used that as an excuse for why he might not have noticed that he killed a man.
Michael Gaffey of Hayward is the judge who sentenced him. Remember that name. It may be part of the solution to the murder-by-car problem.
On Sept. 30, the Governor signed A.B. 8, from Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale). It will establish a “yellow alert” system, so law enforcement can post descriptions of hit-and-run suspects on electronic freeway signs, the way they do now for child abductions. It wouldn’t have helped in the Smith case, but Gatto is attempting to scratch away at a key flaw with road crimes—mainly, that it’s way too easy to flee.
The prosecutors, in fact, argued that Smith fled because he knew he’d be better off facing a possible hit-and-run charge than a certain DWI. In other words, and I’m hardly the first to suggest this, the success of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving may have spawned a hit-and-run crisis.
Recognizing this, Gatto also wrote legislation for a mandatory six-month license suspension for any hit-and-run, even if the victim is unhurt, to try and get the penalties in line with DUI. The governor vetoed the bill. “I’ve run bill after bill—if there’s anything I can come up with to reduce road deaths, I’ll run with it,” said Gatto. “Of all the deaths people talk about, these are the most preventable.”
That said, the ridiculously light sentence in the Smith case is confounding. Nor was it unusual in a country where overt cases of murder-by-car are shrugged off by the legal system. “We just dealt with a case like this in North Carolina,” said Frank Harris, Director of State Government Affairs with MADD. The judge treated the drunk driver as if “the judge were the defense attorney. He sentenced the guy to thirty days.” Harris finds slap-on-the-wrist sentences infuriating. “These judges should be held accountable. That’s when the public needs to step in.”
That means paying attention to the elections of judges and prosecutors, said the legislators and advocates. If Streetsblog worked with advocacy groups and helped unseat judges such as Gaffey and prosecutors such as Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who didn’t think it was worth prosecuting a motorist who was texting his wife and diddling with his computer and, as a result, mowed down and killed a cyclist.
In other words, judges and DAs need to treat murder-by-car like murder, or they should get a new job.
Drinking, using drugs, speeding, reading a book, texting,, or just not looking out the front window while driving (aka: “I didn’t see him”) are just different categories of reckless driving, and are not excuses for killing someone. It is playing Russian Roulette with the public, putting random men, women and children in mortal danger. That’s a crime that requires serious consequences.
Any judge or prosecutor who can’t grasp that fact needs to be shown the door. They must be voted out of office and the Governor has to stop appointing them. Let’s start with Judge Gaffey, whose term ends in 2019.