Officer blamed: Police ticket own in pedestrian incident
The last time an Albemarle County Police cruiser and a pedestrian tangled, it was the pedestrian who got the ticket in an incident that gave law enforcement a black eye and a lawsuit. This time, following a January 13 accident, it's the Albemarle County officer who's facing a charge.
On January 24, eleven days after the incident left a jogger with minor injuries, officer Caroline Ann Morris, 35, was cited for failure to yield the right of way for allegedly striking the man at the eastbound off-ramp of Interstate 64 and Fifth Street Extended.
Prior to Morris' citation, which was filed by Albemarle Corporal Jonathan Shenk, the Hook spoke with the victim, 41-year-old Albemarle County teacher Carlos Pezua. While Pezua declined to confirm one of his friend's allegations that he was tossed up on the hood of the cruiser in the approximately 5:30pm incident, he noted that he was satisfied with the post-crash conduct of Morris and the investigating officers, calling them "courteous and professional."
So why did it take nearly two weeks to issue a ticket?
"Sometimes, there is clear evidence that would cause an officer to bring forth charges immediately," says County police spokesperson Darrell Byers. "Other times, we confer with the Commonwealth's Attorney."
While Byers says a police officer wouldn't receive preferential treatment from department colleagues, he acknowledges that investigating an officer is different from investigating a civilian.
"You've got parallel investigations," explains Byers, citing the criminal justice investigation and the administrative portion, an internal affairs investigation, which, he says, is ongoing. This would not be the first time Morris was involved in an internal investigation; two years ago, she was demoted after an unspecified episode involving four County officers.
In 1995, a drug officer now working as an Albemarle detective, John Baber, struck and killed a pedestrian on Rio Road, but a check of court records shows no evidence of criminal or civil charges in the wake of that accident. In 2007, an Albemarle officer struck and killed a pedestrian on West Rio Road, and this pedestrian's combination of dark clothing, cellphone distraction, as well as the lack of a crosswalk, contributed to clearing Sergeant Pam Greenwood of any criminal responsibility.
More controversially in 2007, Charlottesville Police required little time to decide that it was the wheelchair-bound pedestrian responsible for getting hit in a daytime accident caught on dashcam video. The citizen, Gerry Mitchell, was thrown from his chair after getting struck in a crosswalk by an Albemarle County Police cruiser driven by Officer Gregory C. Davis.
On the day of that incident, a city officer, accompanied by Davis, ticketed Mitchell in his hospital bed, an action prompting public outrage and, eventually, a lawsuit by Mitchell against the City of Charlottesville, ticketing officer Steve Grissom, and Officer Davis.
Four years after the incident and two months before his death, Mitchell settled with the county for an undisclosed sum after evidence surfaced that Davis had been texting furiously in the moments leading up to the accident. Byers says the wheelchair case has had no impact on how County police handle investigations involving one of their own.
As for Pezua, he says he has no interest in suing the Police. He notes that Officer Morris was not on a telephone and that the dwindling sunlight and his own dark clothing made what happened understandable.
"Accidents happen," says Pezua. "I hope all it does is raise awareness for everyone to be more careful."
–story updated Tuesday, January 31 with mention of the 1995 fatality and replacement of a file photo of a police car with an image from Albemarle's police recruitment video.