There are a few things that no one disputes. Martin Olin, a 65-year-old lawyer and music industry guy who was riding his bike in the bike lane, was dead. Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Andrew Wood ran Olin down because he was on his computer while driving. And Martin Olin is still dead.
Wood was returning from a fire call at Calabasas High School and was on patrol when the accident occurred.
‘He was responding to a deputy who was inquiring whether the fire investigation had been completed,’ the letter from the prosecutor’s office stated. ‘Since Wood was acting within the course and scope of his duties when he began to type his response, under Vehicle Code section 23123.5, he acted lawfully.
This came in explanation of why Deputy Wood would not be prosecuted for killing Martin Olin. It seems when one is playing with a cop computer rather than an iPad, the guy they kill is official collateral damage. This makes all the difference.
‘Wood briefly took his eyes away from the road precisely when the narrow roadway curved slightly to the left without prior warning, causing him to inadvertently travel straight into the bike lane, immediately striking Olin.’
Change around a few adjectives and it’s the stuff of indictment, but that’s only when it’s unofficial. Adjectives are cheap. And indeed, police are exempt from the laws prohibiting the use of mobile devices while driving. After all, they sometimes need to run a plate, or get a message about a hostage crisis. Or something similarly official, even if less urgent. And they’re cops.
CHP spokesman Craig Martin, who was not specifically speaking about this case, in a recent email interview.
“As an officer, we are trained to multi-task and are exempt from certain laws in certain situations such as using a cellphone,” he said.
To be clear, it would appear that Martin Olin was killed as a result of Woods’ ordinary negligence. He was distracted and ran Olin down. It was an accident. This shouldn’t be a crime, regardless of who was driving or why they were distracted. To err is human, and contrary to the assumption of those who believe the bludgeon of criminal law should be used to assure that no harm ever comes to anyone, stercus accidit.
In the absence of a more serious and morally culpable mens rea, recklessness at the bare minimum, the mistakes that any person can make should not result in criminal prosecution. And that would appear to cover Deputy Woods’ distracted driving, so that the decision not to prosecute him for Olin’s death is the proper one.
But that’s not sufficient to address the problem here. Had it been someone who wasn’t a cop, but committed conduct no more morally culpable than Woods, he would have been prosecuted. Therein lies the problem, that Woods walks because he killed while distracted by “official” cop-ish stuff, but anyone else would be facing a jury. That’s where this all goes wrong.
If the point is that a guy like Martin Olin shouldn’t be run down in the street for riding his bike at the wrong moment, then what difference does it make that Woods was playing computer-guy about some trivial matter with a fellow cop? To the extent there is a distinction between urgent need for a cop to use his computer and, as here, banal cop chatter, is it worth a guy’s life?
And even if it was something more urgent, like running the plates on a car that crossed a solid line, is it worth a guy’s life? If the point of having cops is to protect us from crime, then killing guys on bikes in the process isn’t really serving the purpose.
Martin Olin’s family will be suing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office, and that’s as it should be. Negligence begets a civil suit for damages. Unfortunately, human beings can be negligent, do things that cause harm to others without any malicious intent or conscious disregard of the risks. They didn’t mean to cause any harm. And yet, they do. And sometimes, that harm is the death of a guy on a bike. It’s not good, but it’s not criminal.
Had anyone other than a cop been driving the car that ran Martin Olin down and took his life, he would have been engaged in criminal conduct, since the law prohibits the use of devices like a computer while driving. The justification is that it’s too distracting, and there seems to be some pretty good reason to believe that’s the case. And so it would have been a crime to kill while violating the law, and that person would end up prosecuted for the negligent vehicular homicide of Martin Olin.
Yet every factor that militates in favor of prosecuting a non-cop exists in equal force for prosecuting a cop. Except that he’s a cop. Despite the silly claim that cops are trained to multitask, as if they aren’t subject to the same distraction that the rest of humanity is forced to endure. The fact that Martin Olin is dead puts that nonsense to rest.
So either make it a crime for everyone, or make it a crime for no one. My vote is that no one should be subject to prosecution for a mere accident, just because we’re human and humans make mistakes. Sure, Martin Olin would be dead regardless, but that’s not why we create crimes. We do so to punish the morally culpable, and the outcome of conduct is not a reflection of the cause.
Had Martin Olin pedaled one step faster that day, he might not have been in the spot where Deputy Woods killed him. Yet, that makes Woods’ conduct neither more nor less criminal. It’s just kismet that Olin was exactly where he was when Woods hit him. The same would be true if Woods wasn’t a cop, or if it was someone else instead of Woods.
But either way, if it’s a crime or not, the fact that there was a cop behind the wheel is no cause for distinguishing between a crime and an accident. If the only thing that matters is a guy was killed, then he’s just as dead at the hands of the cop as anyone else. And Martin Olin is still dead.