To anybody who has ever received a speeding ticket, the resolution of the investigation into Tiger Woods’s car crash in February might seem odd.
Despite the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s determination that Woods drove well above 80 miles per hour in a 45 m.p.h. zone, he was not given a ticket or charged with reckless driving. Law enforcement officers did not conduct field sobriety tests or obtain a search warrant for a blood test or toxicology report.
This week, at a news conference to announce the results of his department’s investigation, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said his officers had conducted a thorough investigation and treated the famous golfer as they would anyone else.
“Now, I know there is some saying that somehow he received special or preferential treatment of some kind,” Villanueva said. “That is absolutely false.”
Some criminal defense lawyers in the Los Angeles area who regularly represent clients accused of reckless driving or driving under the influence questioned whether the Sheriff’s Department pursued its case against Woods as aggressively as it had pursued cases against others.
“I know how law enforcement works there, and this one is curious,” said Stephen Sitkoff, a criminal defense lawyer who spent a decade working in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
There are three key portions of the investigation to consider:
Why didn’t Woods get a speeding ticket?
Tiger Woods was driving at least 40 m.p.h. above the posted speed limit when he lost control. But nobody actually saw him driving that fast — a major detail under California law. His approximate speed of about 84 to 87 m.p.h. at the start of the crash was recorded by the vehicle’s event data recorder, known colloquially as the black box.
California’s vehicle code places a strong emphasis on needing a witness to ticket somebody for speeding.
“In order to issue a citation, you have something to indicate — an independent witness or an observation by a peace officer,” said James Powers, the captain of the Lomita Sheriff’s Station, which handled the investigation of Woods’s crash.
Had Woods been issued a citation based on the readings from the data recorder, Powers said and experts agreed, there was a good chance a judge would have thrown the case out.
“We have gotten accustomed to this very false presumption, which is a computer said so, so it must be true,” said Anthony Falangetti, a criminal defense lawyer in Long Beach.
Falangetti reeled off a list of ways the data recorder could be challenged if used by itself as evidence: The data recorder could have been programmed improperly, its estimates could be inaccurate and the speedometer in the car could be calibrated incorrectly.
“There are all sorts of reasons why that circumstantial evidence isn’t taken for granted by the sheriff’s department,” he said.
Why wasn’t Woods charged with reckless driving?
Section 23103 of the California Vehicle Code states that somebody is guilty of reckless driving if they drive on a highway with “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.”
Driving 40 m.p.h. over the speed limit on a winding, downhill road arguably meets the criteria for reckless driving. In a weird quirk of the law, it might actually have been easier to charge Woods with reckless driving, a misdemeanor crime that holds the possibility of jail time, than to give him a speeding ticket, because the California vehicle code does not require witnesses to charge someone with reckless driving.
Captain Powers, however, said there was no evidence of reckless driving. “For reckless driving, you have to have multiple violations in conjunction with one another — like multiple unsafe lane changes, passing vehicles in an unsafe manner, kind of like road race stuff — and that did not exist here,” he said. “Therefore, reckless driving is not appropriate.”
But a number of lawyers who have defended clients charged with reckless driving disagree.
“The D.A. could easily get a conviction for reckless driving based on the black box alone,” said Hart Levin, a Los Angeles lawyer who specializes in D.U.I. defense. “And even if the black box were somehow not deemed reliable, the accident reconstruction would show the car going in excess of 70 m.p.h. when it hit the tree.”
Patrick Carey, a criminal defense lawyer and former deputy district attorney, also wonders why Woods was not charged. “I personally have handled cases with much less egregious facts where my clients have been charged in court with misdemeanors,” he wrote in an email.
But while it’s possible Woods could have been charged, Carey said he did not think that a less famous person would necessarily be charged under the same circumstances.
That highlights a fundamental but easily overlooked part of the justice system: Thousands of single-vehicle crashes occur every day and law enforcement authorities have wide latitude in how hard they decide to pursue cases.
Why wasn’t Woods checked more thoroughly in regard to driving under the influence?
The Sheriff’s Department did not obtain a warrant to draw blood from Woods to test whether or not he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol when he crashed.
“Without the signs of impairment, we don’t get to the point where we can actually author a search warrant and develop the probable cause to get that, and execute that search warrant — so that did not happen,” Captain Powers said.
Several pages of the 22-page official crash report are dedicated to laying out the steps sheriff’s deputies took to investigate whether Woods was impaired:
Field sobriety tests could not be performed because of Woods’s injuries.
The first deputy on the scene did not smell alcohol, and there were no open containers or prescription medications in the car.
While being extracted from his car, Woods responded to questions without delay, his speech was not slurred and his eyes were not bloodshot or watery.
The firefighters who treated Woods at the scene said his pupils did not show signs of “narcotic analgesic influence.”
Video obtained from Woods’s hotel on the morning of the crash did not show him swaying or staggering, and he drove away from the hotel safely.
The hotel’s valet and valet service manager did not notice anything unsafe or unusual.
Woods was interviewed at the hospital and there were no signs of impairment.
Someone who was with Woods throughout his time in Los Angeles, including the morning of the accident, said they did not observe Woods drinking alcohol or taking any prescription medications. This person’s identity is redacted in the report.
Four years ago, Woods pleaded guilty to reckless driving, after he was found asleep at the driver’s wheel on the side of the road. He blamed the episode on the interaction between prescription medications he was taking at the time.
But just because Woods has previously driven while impaired by prescription medications does not mean the Sheriff’s Department could use that to obtain a warrant to test his blood.
“‘He did it before, therefore he did it again’ is fundamentally not a constitutional basis for anything,” Falangetti said. “We are principally opposed to that kind of accusation in criminal law.”
Still, the Sheriff’s Department could have pushed harder to test Woods’s blood, especially considering there was at least minor evidence of prescription pill use. According to the crash report, an “empty plastic pharmaceutical container” with no label was found in a backpack that was resting in the brush next to Woods’s vehicle.
“If it was one of my clients, not anybody special, I think they would have been given a blood test,” Sitkoff said.
Would pursing the case have been worthwhile?
Woods suffered severe injuries in the crash and ultimately, the Sheriff’s Department may simply believe it is not necessary to seek more punishment. When asked why Woods was not cited for speeding, Captain Powers said, “Part of it was because of the circumstances that he endured throughout the collision.”
Woods did not hit another car, and nobody else was hurt. A speeding ticket would most likely have been thrown out, a reckless driving case may have been difficult to prove and there were no obvious signs that Woods was illegally impaired.
Under the circumstances, suffering devastating leg injuries that hold the possibility of ending Woods’s golf career is perhaps a much worse punishment than being charged with a misdemeanor.
“I think that, based on the physical punishment he suffered, it is more of a case of ‘What’s the point in charging him?’” Carey said.
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