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Marin Motorist Receives Light Sentence for Running Down Cyclists

First responders treating one of the cyclists wounded in last year’s devastating hit and run. Photo: Marin County Bicycle Coalition/Elias

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

Aaron Paff, the motorist who ran down four cyclists on October 9 of last year before fleeing the scene, was sentenced to 18 months in prison last week.

From the Marin IJ:

Aaron Michael Paff, 22, of Novato, drove his Dodge Ram truck into the cyclists in October on Point Reyes-Petaluma Road just west of Hicks Valley Road. The cyclists were participating in the Jensie Gran Fondo of Marin, a ride that benefits the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. Witnesses said the truck intentionally swerved to the right to swipe the cyclists, police said. One witness estimated the truck’s speed at 65 to 70 mph.

Given the speed and total disregard for the lives of the cyclists (Spencer Fast, the most critically injured, was airlifted to the hospital) bike advocates were understandably outraged at the light sentence. "I believe it is essentially a slap on the wrist for what he did. It also sends the wrong message to others," wrote Michael Stephenson, a Senior Attorney with Bay Area Bicycle Law who works closely with victims of unsafe driving. "I believe that there is strong evidence that what Paff did constituted attempted murder."

Eye-witnesses reported that Paff seemed to intentionally swerve into the cyclists. "However, it may have been too difficult for the prosecution to prove it because California's Criminal Jury Instruction's state that in order to prove attempted murder, the prosecution must prove that the defendant 'intended to kill' and also says that there must be a 'definite and unambiguous intent to kill.'" But the reality is, he explained, that "there is likely to be at least a few jurors with a strong anti-cyclist bias," rendering a conviction very difficult to achieve. Thus, the guilty plea by Paff to the lesser charge of hit-and-run.

Still, Stephenson remained frustrated by the outcome. "I believe that intentionally slamming a truck into someone at speeds exceeding 65 mph is very strong circumstantial evidence of 'intent to kill.'"

There's a second issue, however. As the Marin IJ reported, "The prosecution also dismissed a separate pending hit-and-run case in which he allegedly damaged a Novato shopping center with his truck and had an open alcohol container in the vehicle." So why was Paff on the road in the first place last October, considering he already had such a serious charge against him? One would think, since driving is supposed to be a privilege and not a right, that such a charge would necessitate a suspension of one's drivers license, at least until a verdict is rendered.

Unfortunately, the legal system makes it almost impossible to suspend someone's license, even when they are accused of a serious vehicular crime. "Only in limited circumstances can the Department of Motor Vehicles suspend a license prior to a conviction in a criminal court," explained Andy Gillin, of GJEL Accident Attorneys, and an expert in traffic law, in an email to Streetsblog. He wrote that suspending a license prior to a conviction involves a years-long process, so it's just not done. "Mothers Against Drunk Driving has been lobbying for tightening up enforcement in this regard."

Streetsblog has reached out to state lawmakers to find out if there is any possibility of passing such laws in California, but the trend seems to be towards making it easier for unsafe drivers to retain their licenses, not the other way around. Past efforts to connect hit-and-runs with automatic license suspensions have not succeeded. Former Assemblyman Mike Gatto from Glendale made several attempts to pass legislation to suspend licenses of hit-and-run motorists, with little success. "It was both surprising and disappointing how much push-back we got on this issue," said Gatto in a phone interview with Streetsblog. "We have, at least on the Democratic Party side, made a major priority to try and tell people to get out of cars...then they're subject to severe injury or death and the government doesn’t protect them. That’s the single most frustrating paradox in government right now." Even when a hit-and-run driver kills someone, the punishment can be inexplicably lenient.

Meanwhile, Jim Elias, Executive Director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, in a post written prior to the sentencing, stressed the importance of putting safety first and foremost. "Spencer Fast, the cyclist most seriously injured in the incident, reports feeling genuinely grateful to the CHP, the DA’s Office, and Marin Superior Court, for how they performed their duties, given existing laws...On-road safety must first be considered from the perspective of vulnerable users; namely bicyclists and pedestrians."

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