NEWS- Dismissed! Second wheelchair victim cleared
Two recent incidents prove police can and will cite wheelchair pedestrians who've been struck by vehicles in crosswalks. Court cases resulting from those incidents, however, reveal it's hard to make the tickets stick.
On Tuesday morning, January 22, in Charlottesville District Court, Circuit Judge Judge William Barkley dismissed the charges against Deborah Hamlin, the visually impaired and physically handicapped wheelchair pedestrian who was struck by a dump truck at the intersection of JPA and Lee Street and then ticketed for failing to obey a pedestrian signal.
"I think it's a civil matter," Barkley announced after listening to Hamlin describe her visual disability and the specialized training she received that directed her to ignore pedestrian signals and instead focus on the noise made by traffic.
"I thought he had stopped for me," Hamlin said of the dump truck that partly ran over her as she crossed the southern side of the intersection at JPA and Lee Street heading west. Hamlin, who also uses her husband's last name, Mawyer, said she was coming down JPA from an appointment at UVA hospital. After successfully crossing Lee Street, she prepared to cross JPA. But the sidewalk along that stretch, she testified, "severely dips," forcing her to be "desperately focused on controlling my chair." Hamlin said she didn't know there was a pedestrian signal there, and couldn't have reached the button to trigger the signal even if she had seen it.
Although police took statements from witnesses at the scene (who had screamed for the dump truck to stop after Hamlin had been knocked from her chair and was partially under the truck's grill), no witnesses were present in court this morning to testify. That, said Barkley, meant any of their statements would be considered "hearsay." While the Commonwealth failed to make a case against Hamlin, Barkley added, that in issuing the ticket, "the officers have done fine."
Hamlin was taken one block to the UVA emergency room where she was treated– and then ticketed. She says her shoulder was injured in the accident and will require surgery to regain mobility. Hamlin says her doctor has recommended she "leave it" and cope with the additional limitation the injury imposes, but she says she'd "like to try to get surgery to get it fixed" since she is now unable to maneuver her chair in strenuous circumstances.
Hamlin's case echoes the case of Gerry Mitchell, who was struck by an Albemarle County Police cruiser on November 5 and then ticketed. His charges were dropped on January 6, and Mitchell has not announced whether he'll pursue a civil case against Albemarle County Police or Charlottesville Police who issued the ticket hours after he was struck.
Like Hamlin's, a shoulder injury stemming from his accident has worsened Mitchell's already precarious health. He has suffered from HIV/AIDS since 1981, and medication he takes to control the illness has rendered his bones so brittle he can no longer walk. He has been hospitalized three times since the November accident and is currently at Health South on Fontaine Avenue where he'll receive intensive occupational and physical therapy for the next three weeks.
Mitchell's friends have organized a fundraiser to be held on February 9 at the 214 Community Arts Center that will feature a variety of local music acts.
In the wake of the accident, another friend of Mitchell's, psychologist Jim McKinley-Oakes, has posted an online petition– gopetition.com/petitions/justice-for-gerry-mitchell.html– asking City Council and the state Attorney General's office to investigate the Charlottesville Police Department's decision to ticket Mitchell and not the Albemarle officer who struck him. That petition has garnered 81 signatures so far.
Despite the public outcry, local government officials are focusing their energy on improving crosswalks rather than investigating police handling of Mitchell's case.
"You'll see some real substantive changes" at intersections around the city, says Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, who cites Mitchell's and Hamlin's accidents as the impetus for the changes. On Tuesday night, after this paper's press time, Council addressed the issue of pedestrian safety.
Norris says Council plans to considering making all intersections and pedestrian signals more accessible to individuals with disabilities, as well as trying to establish consistency among intersections.
Currently, anyone attempting to cross at intersections face a hodgepodge of signs, buttons, and laws. Some pedestrian signals have buttons one must press to trigger the signal; others change automatically. Moreover, some show the words "walk" and "don't walk" while others use the universal symbols of a red hand for stop, a white walking figure for go. Under current state law, only those using words are enforceable.
Delegate David Toscano has also gotten in on the pedestrian safety action, co-sponsoring one pedestrian bill and sponsoring a second. The first, HB 1270, written with a delegate from Northern Virginia, clarifies responsibilities for both pedestrians and drivers and, if passed, would require drivers to stop and yield to pedestrians who enter a marked crosswalk.
The second bill, HB 1478, closes a legal loophole that rendered unenforceable pedestrian signals that use symbols or sounds. Toscano says he wrote this bill as a direct result of confusion in the Mitchell case.
"People should agree," says Toscano, "that public safety is served if you can enforce the laws you have on the books."