Wednesday, November 30 2022

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There will be no justice for Carl Cutler, the John’s Island resident who was cycling along North A1A on Memorial Day weekend 2021 when he was fatally hit by a car that inexplicably veered off the road.

John Rampp, the driver of the car that killed Cutler, won’t spend any time in jail, since he hasn’t been charged with a crime.

The case against Rampp, in fact, was closed last week, when he pleaded no contest to a careless driving offense and County Judge Nicole Menz found him guilty, fined him $1. $000 and suspended his license for six months.

She did her job, making sure that Rampp didn’t escape at least some guilt for his betrayal of the implicit trust that drivers, cyclists and pedestrians place in each other on our roads.

Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for the rest of our legal system, which prohibited Menz from doing more.

Florida law defines reckless driving as failing to drive “carefully and prudently…so as not to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person.”

Rampp was certainly guilty of this.

Should he have been charged with reckless driving, a considerably more serious offense which, depending on the circumstances, can be either a misdemeanor or a felony and punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of 5,000 $?

According to applicable law: “Any person who drives a vehicle with willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.

Florida courts have interpreted these words to mean that drivers must act deliberately with intentional indifference to the consequences that might result from their recklessness.

However, simply being careless while driving does not meet Florida’s standard for reckless driving.

That’s where the system failed, much to the dismay of more than 100 of Cutler’s friends and John’s Island neighbors, who were confused, upset and even angry after a Florida Highway Patrol investigation determined that the Rampp’s conduct that unfortunate morning was not criminal and issued a $148 ticket for reckless driving.

After the FHP finally released its traffic homicide report in March — 10 months after the May 29, 2021 crash near the Pelican Island Wildlife Sanctuary — Jim Altieri, one of Cutler’s neighbors, led an effort to demand that the state attorney’s office intervene in the case and conduct its own investigation.

They wrote to State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl, as well as State Rep. Erin Grall and State Senator Debbie Mayfield, citing a gaping hole in the FHP investigation, which left without answer the most important question:

What made Rampp’s car veer off the road?

Was he texting while driving or using his cell phone – reading emails, browsing Facebook, watching videos – when his attention should have been on the road, especially when he approaches a cyclist on the cycle path?

Was he adjusting his radio? Or was it reaching for an object and its tilt caused the car to drift?

We do not know.

We don’t know because the 18-page FHP report, written and submitted by Corporal Bradley Meer, never tells us why the car left the road.

The only explanation in the report comes from Rampp, who told FHP Corporal William Fenton at the scene that the car ahead of him had passed Cutler, swerving the cyclist onto the pavement and Rampp “did not have time to react” .

The only witness to the crash, however, said he was six car lengths behind Rampp and saw no other vehicles passing Cutler before Rampp’s car veered off the roadway and into the bike lane on a period of several seconds.

Also, the diagram in the FHP report shows that Rampp’s car veered into the bike lane and crashed into Cutler.

“Rampp was obviously distracted at the time of the accident,” Altieri wrote to Assistant District Attorney Bill Long, Vero Beach District Attorney Bakkedahl, assigned to the case.

Altieri, an attorney who said he was acting solely as a spokesperson for Cutler’s friends and neighbors, wrote that he reviewed the FHP report and was shocked to find no mention of a medical examination. Rampp’s cell phone legality, especially with Florida believed to have engaged in a crackdown on distracted driving.

In this case, a seemingly distracted driver killed a retired, active and physically fit 63-year-old investment broker who split his time between the Greater Philadelphia area and 32963 Island.

“Why was this not mentioned or pursued in the investigation?” Altieri wrote.

“What, if anything, was he asked about his cell phone?” Under these circumstances, the police obviously had probable cause to confiscate his phone and take all necessary steps to determine if it was being used that morning.

“What questions were asked? ” he added. “What answers were given? Did the police just take a serial offender’s word that all was well in his cockpit? »

A Vero Beach 32963 investigation into Rampp’s driving record revealed last fall that he had a long history of traffic violations dating back to 1988 and that his license had been suspended twice.

Altieri was also puzzled by the state attorney’s office’s refusal to interview Rampp, interview the eyewitness and challenge Rampp’s version of what caused the crash, writing that the driver “lied” when questioned at the scene, “fabricating a story about a second ghost vehicle. ”

He asked if Rampp had been “confronted with this deception”.

Closing the case without asking Rampp those questions was essentially giving the driver a “free pass,” Altieri wrote.

Bakkedahl and Long, however, said last week that the FHP never sought advice because state troopers who investigated the crash determined it was an accident.

It wasn’t until Altieri and his group contacted the state’s attorney’s office earlier this summer that Bakkedahl asked Long to review the FHP report.

In doing so, Long defended the FHP’s decision to cite Rampp for reckless driving, explaining in an email to Altieri and his group that there was no evidence to support a criminal charge under Florida law. .

He sent Altieri a series of appeals court rulings to bolster his decision.

“If you read the documents,” Long wrote, “you will see that previous defendants whose conduct greatly exceeded that of Mr. Rampp did not drive recklessly.”

Long expressed sympathy for Cutler’s death, admitting that if he were in Altieri’s shoes, “I can’t say I would handle things differently or be less upset.”

In a separate email to Altieri, however, Long wrote that the FHP report presents an “insufficient factual and legal basis” for a criminal charge against Rampp, and that his oath of office bars him from pursuing cases he knows he can’t win. .”

Despite the strong emotions surrounding the crash, Long wrote that he had “no doubt” a judge would dismiss the case before it went to a jury.

He’s not wrong.

But could the DA’s office have reopened the investigation to determine what prompted Rampp to pull off the freeway?

Yes, but Bakkedahl said the population boom along the Treasure Coast — Port St. Lucie is Florida’s seventh most populous city — has produced a growing workload and his office, with just three investigators to cover the circuit. of the four counties, lack of manpower to devote themselves to such a mission.

Furthermore, he added, a second review of the case is unlikely to have changed anything, even though his investigators have uncovered the digital evidence needed to prove that Rampp was using his cellphone when his car drifted into the bike lane.

“I highly doubt it would have mattered,” Bakkedahl said, citing the current standard for proving reckless driving.

Again, the system failed, this time at the legislative level.

Last winter, a Florida Senate bill that would add texting while driving to a category of traffic offenses that constitute “aggressive reckless driving” – an offense that would become criminal in case of property damage, bodily injury or death – went nowhere after clearing a committee.

Had this law been in place, prosecutors here might have responded differently to Cutler’s friends and neighbors, although a motorist must commit at least two traffic offenses simultaneously or in succession to be charged with aggressive reckless driving.

The FHP may have treated the accident as a crime and not an accident.

As time went on, Altieri managed to convince Bakkedahl to send a prosecutor to court last week to advise and observe Meer — a move that likely prompted Rampp not to challenge the reckless driving citation.

“It’s almost unprecedented for this office to send a lawyer to court for a civil offense,” Bakkedahl said, “but we didn’t want him to walk away unscathed.”

As fate would have it, Rampp was arrested in April on felony weapons charges stemming from an incident in March that had no connection to the fatal crash. Cutler’s friends and neighbors are watching this case, wondering what justice will look like this time.

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