Who’s Right? The Lady or the Cop?

Left, Right, and Left Again

Sonia Harris at Milpas and Ortega streets crosswalk.
Paul Wellman

CROSSWALK COURT CASE: A woman steps out onto a Milpas Street crosswalk, has a close encounter with a van, and is knocked down and injured. A Santa Barbara police officer arrives ​— ​and writes her a ticket.

What? How can this be, people wonder? Don’t pedestrians have the absolute right-of-way not only in crosswalks but at all intersections? Once in, aren’t they protected?

Short answer: not necessarily.

Barney Brantingham

I spent hours in court recently to see how this judicial puzzler played out. The case was argued before Superior Court Judge Tom Adams in three sessions over three weeks. The elephant in the courtroom wasn’t the fine involved but the prospect of the pedestrian suing the driver and possibly the City of Santa Barbara even if the pedestrian was found guilty.

So everyone was taking it very seriously ​— ​and well aware that at the same intersection, Milpas and Ortega streets, last October 7, a San Marcos High 10th grader, 15-year-old Sergio Romero, was killed by a truck while in the crosswalk. A 19-year-old driver was charged with speeding and failure to yield to a pedestrian.

Residents were up in arms, demanding that the city improve safety there. Police have been staging stings around town, on Milpas and other streets, ticketing drivers who failed to stop for pedestrians. It’s a hot issue.

But it wasn’t a hasty decision by Judge Adams. He took the case under submission on July 12 and ruled on August 1. His findings: The pedestrian, Sonia Harris, was guilty of violating California Vehicle Code Section 21950(b), “right-of-way at crosswalks,” in his words. Fine: $194.

It all revolved around what happened at 10:25 a.m. on March 1, 2012. Harris, 58, approached the Ortega Street crosswalk, looked left, and saw a vehicle approaching but “far away.” She told police she felt she had time to cross. “I thought the driver would stop.” She looked right, saw no cars approaching, and then walked out, according to testimony.

Meanwhile, Laura Teel was driving her van, approaching the crosswalk from the left. According to testimony, neither saw the other in the moments just before the collision. Teel said she saw “a purple blur” out of the corner of her eye, slammed on the brakes, looked back, and saw Harris down in the crosswalk. Harris, wearing a purple top, had walked into Teel’s passenger-side window as Teel drove by at about 20 mph.

Harris suffered two broken ankles. Officer Ethan Ragsdale arrived at the scene, talked to Harris, Teel, and witnesses, took measurements, and made calculations based on typical driver-reaction time, the speed involved, safe stopping distance, and other factors. He then cited Harris on grounds that she’d walked out when it wasn’t safe and hadn’t allowed the driver sufficient time to stop for her.

When Harris entered the crosswalk, she “reasonably believed she was safe,” said defense attorney Michael Reino, and that she had the right-of-way due to the crosswalk. “I don’t understand how the judge could not find reasonable doubt” that his client was in violation, Reino told me. He said she plans to sue the driver over the injuries. “We haven’t decided yet” whether to sue the city, he said.

Deputy District Attorney Kevin Weichbrod pointed out that while Harris did look to her left, and then to her right, she did not look back to her left. In the moments that took, and while Harris was walking out, the van covered the distance to the crosswalk, and she walked into the van, he told the judge.

Weichbrod said, in his opinion, the judge made a fair ruling based on evidence.

DOG OF A CASE: Court interpreter Carlos Cerecedo tells of a dog-in-court event in Superior Court Judge Jim Slater’s courtroom years ago.

An important witness in a child-support civil case refused to testify unless she was allowed to not only bring her poodle into the courtroom but testify with the pooch on her lap, Cerecedo told me. The bailiff refused. The woman insisted. The bailiff insisted. “No, I’m not leaving my dog,” she told him, even after the bailiff offered to hold the mutt while she testified. Slater, an easy-going guy, said, okay, bring in the poodle.

I checked the story out with Slater, who confirmed it. The bailiff, Jim Brandlin, went to law school, became a lawyer, and is now a judge in L.A., he said. Whether he allows dogs in court, I don’t know.


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