Appeal denied: County cop convicted, transparency still elusive
Five years after the notorious Gerry Mitchell case in which an officer went uncharged despite striking a wheelchair-bound pedestrian in a crosswalk, the Albemarle County Police Department seems to be sending a new message: that its officers aren't immune from prosecution even in minor traffic incidents. Two cases that went to court this year seem to illustrate the notion of Albemarle accountability.
"Our police officers are held to a higher standard than the general public," says Police Chief Steve Sellers, who points out that officers drive a lot more miles than the average citizen and face an additional level of scrutiny because the officers also become subject to an internal investigation.
"Even if they're not at fault but the accident is preventable," Sellers says, "they're held accountable."
On January 13, Albemarle Police officer Caroline Ann Morris struck a jogger as she attempted to turn from the eastbound exit ramp of Interstate 64 onto Fifth Street. Nearly two weeks after the incident, Morris was charged with failure to yield, even though the victim– Carlos Pezua– was forgiving.
"Accidents happen," he said at the time, noting that he'd been wearing dark clothing at dusk when the accident occurred, and that Morris did not appear to have been using a phone or otherwise obviously distracted. On March 6 in Albemarle General District Court, Morris was found not guilty.
The victim in another police-caused accident– which occurred nearly a year ago– sounded similar notes of understanding during a recent hearing.
"Fender benders happen every day," testified Sara Gutshall in Albemarle County Circuit Court on Tuesday, October 9.
A year earlier, at a traffic signal on Georgetown Road, Gutshall's car was struck from behind by an Albemarle Police cruiser. A UVA Medical Center employee, Gutshall testified that the driver, Officer Andrew D. Holmes, seemed "very concerned with my well-being" after the October 27, 2011, accident, noted that she was uninjured, and said her car sustained only minor bumper damage.
"We exchanged insurance information, and I thought that would be the end of it," she testified in the recent hearing, on Holmes' appeal of the improper driving conviction he received in March.
After his supervisor, Lt. Todd Hopwood, viewed the dashcam video of the accident and then conferred with Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford, Holmes was initially charged with reckless driving. Testimony at the March 13 trial indicated that investigators found no skid marks or other evidence that Holmes hit the brakes before impact. Moreover, the trial court was shown the dashcam video that showed Gutshall's car braking uneventfully at the traffic signal at Barracks Road.
"The video shows the brake lights came on with sufficient time to stop," said Circuit Court Judge Paul Peatross, who upheld the conviction. Holmes attorney, Fran Lawrence, had unsuccessfully argued that there should have been evidence of driver distraction to sustain the conviction. Neither Lawrence nor Holmes would comment after the hearing.
Chief Sellers denies that the recent charges resulted from fallout after the Gerry Mitchell case. That's the infamous 2007 incident in which Albemarle County Police Officer Gregory C. Davis struck the wheelchair-bound Mitchell in a crosswalk on West Main Street. Lying in his hospital bed, Mitchell was then visited by a Charlottesville police officer who handed him a ticket for "failure to obey a pedestrian signal."
While the charge was dismissed, outrage soared. And the dashcam video taken from Davis' cruiser only fueled the concern. The video revealed that Davis had been listening to music when striking Mitchell in broad daylight. Depositions in Mitchell's ensuing lawsuit revealed that Davis had been sending and receiving text messages up to the moment of the accident.
Mitchell, a Yale-educated artist who'd long suffered from an array of health woes, alleged that his condition worsened after the injuries sustained in the crosswalk; he died in December 2011, shortly after settling with Albemarle County for an undisclosed sum.
While Sellers denies that any "Code of Blue" would lead officers to protect each other in legal or traffic matters, that doesn't mean the chief plans to open the department's disciplinary process to the public. Several Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests related to Holmes case made by the Hook have been denied, among them a request for the dashcam video, even though the evidence was screened in open court.
"It's a clear delineation for me," explains Sellers. "If it's part of an internal investigation, we typically wouldn't release that information. If it's part of an active ongoing criminal investigation, we wouldn't release that until it's adjudicated."
Despite releasing a photograph of Gregory Davis last year, the department now refuses to release photographs of its officers. Sellers defends the policy as safety issue.
"This is a small community," says Sellers, noting that disseminating photos could put undercover officers at risk. According to previous Albemarle Police spokesman Darrell Byers, the release of Davis' photo was a "mistake."
Even as he acknowledges his unwillingness to release certain information, Sellers insists that increased transparency remains a goal.
"As chief, I have the authority and flexibility to be more open than FOIA allows," says Sellers, mentioning the possible launch of a Facebook page that would help the community get to know the officers in the department.
"I'm going more in that direction every day."
The Hook has resubmitted its request for the dashcam video from Holmes' cruiser.