Cyclist Pleads Guilty to First Ever U.S. Felony Vehicular Manslaughter

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 24 2013 12:39 PM

In U.S. First, Cyclist Pleads Guilty to Felony Vehicular Manslaughter

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A cyclist in San Francisco has plead guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter

File photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A bicyclist who fatally struck an elderly pedestrian while riding in San Francisco earlier this year has pleaded guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter in what appears to be the first such conviction in the United States. Under the plea deal announced Tuesday, 37-year-old Chris Bucchere will avoid jail time, and will instead be placed on probation for the next three years and required to perform 1,000 hours of community service. Here's Reuters with the back story on what proved to be a fatal crash:

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

Bucchere, a software developer, was riding his bike downhill on March 29, 2012, when he slammed into Sutchi Hui, 71, at an intersection crowded with pedestrians in the city's Castro District. Hui was crossing the street with his wife. He died of his injuries four days later.
Witness accounts described Bucchere as having run a red light before striking Hui, and [district attorney George] Gascon said that was the "tie breaker" between prosecuting the case as a felony or a misdemeanor. ... Bucchere also blew past two other red lights and a stop sign and was traveling at 30 miles per hour, said Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the District Attorney's Office.
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Hui's family had made it clear they did not want to see Bucchere sent to prison, and prosecutors were doubtful that a judge would have sent the 37-year-old there anyway. "We believe this is the best outcome for this type of case," Gascon told reporters, adding that his goal had been to "send a message to cyclists about safety," something he believed the felony conviction accomplished.

If the case would have gone to trial, it would have likely featured an online message Bucchere posted to a biking forum about the accident the day it occurred (and before Hui died). The post has since been deleted, but it has been preserved by BicycleLaw.com. The relevant portion:

"Around 8 a.m. I was descending Divisadero Street southbound and about to cross Market Street. The light turned yellow as I was approaching the intersection, but I was already way too committed to stop. The light turned red as I was cruising through the middle of the intersection and then, almost instantly, the southern crosswalk on Market and Castro filled up with people coming from both directions. The intersection very long and the width of Castro Street at that point is very short, so, in a nutshell, blammo. ... It was commuter hour and it was crowded as all getup. I couldn't see a line through the crowd and I couldn't stop, so I laid it down and just plowed through the crowded crosswalk in the least-populated place I could find.
"I don't remember the next five minutes but when I came to, I was in a neck brace being loaded into an ambulance. I remember seeing a RIVER of blood on the asphalt, but it wasn't mine. Apparently I hit a 71-year-old male pedestrian and he ended up in the ICU with pretty serious head injuries. I really hope he ends up OK."

A felony conviction for vehicular manslaughter in California can carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison, compared with only one year in jail for a misdemeanor.

While Bucchere's felony manslaughter conviction appears to be a first for a U.S. cyclist, it comes only four months after another San Fran biker pleaded guilty to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter after hitting a 67-year-old woman, who later died. In that case, however, the sentence was remarkably similar to Bucchere's: three years probation and 500 hours of community, albeit without a felony conviction on the cyclist's record. (Although, according to the the Guardian, a superior court judge could reduce Bucchere's conviction to a misdemeanor at a later time.)

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This post had been updated with additional information.