Thursday, July 26, 2007

Who Owns the Road? Cyclist Goes on Trial in Bike vs. Car Battle

Who Owns the Road? Cyclist Goes on Trial in Bike vs. Car Battle

As RAGBRAI wheels across Iowa, a Johnson County cyclist is facing trial on assault charges in a bike vs. car confrontation. In an unusual twist, the cyclist's guest editorial criticizing police has been entered by the prosecution as evidence in the upcoming trial.  Observers say the case reflects the growing tensions between cyclists and drivers on the road.

Donald Baxter of University Heights is charged with assault in a Jan. 8 incident on the University of Iowa campus. His trial is scheduled for Monday, with a pretrial conference on Friday. Baxter believes he is being selectively prosecuted for two reasons: his ongoing criticism of the Iowa City Police Department and his HIV-positive status.

"I've been a constant critic of the Iowa City police for five years," said Baxter, 48. "They enforce the law against pedestrians and cyclists, but they're not so good at protecting pedestrian and cyclist's rights."

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, citing ethical rules, declined to comment on the specific case. She did say, "We do not treat cases or defendants differently because of HIV status -- unless it is a specific element of some offense -- public criticism of any public employees or officials, or because someone has expressed views about a particular topic." An Iowa City police officer involved in the investigation also declined comment, referring inquiries to a public information officer not involved with the case.

Baxter regularly confronts drivers who he believes are endangering pedestrians and cyclists. "Mostly they're angry, but some people apologize," he said in an Iowa Independent interview. He cites an unfair standard: "When cyclists complain about vehicles, (the police) say 'it's hearsay.' What other crime do the police have to actually see before they cite someone? They trust drivers over cyclists."

Baxter has posted court documents about the Jan. 8 incident, including audio of 911 calls, on his website.  One of those documents is a Baxter editorial  from the Iowa City Press-Citizen published Jan. 7, the day before the incident. In the column, Baxter wrote:

"Pedestrian's rights are hardly ever protected by Iowa City and University of Iowa police officers. Check to see how many PAULA tickets are written versus 'failure to yield' tickets and then ask yourself how many underaged drinkers die of alcohol poisoning as opposed to pedestrian and bicycle deaths."

Baxter said police have characterized the editorial as "harsh." A statement by an investigating officer on the day of the incident notes that another police sergeant had thought Baxter was the editorial writer. The sergeant then contacted the Press-Citizen to request a copy.

"We wouldn't have even known about them using the column as evidence if the column had been posted online properly," said Press-Citizen opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson. "For some reason, it didn't get uploaded with the rest of the paper that day."

"Journalism has real world consequences, even if those are highly negative consequences," said Charis-Carlson. He said opinion columns have been used against university faculty members seeking tenure, but he's not aware of any other case in which police have used a column as evidence.  "If your words are going to be used against you by the police, it's frightening, but it's part of the consequences of entering the public forum."

According to all accounts, Baxter pounded on the window of Ronnie Washington's van to confront Washington about how fast he'd been driving, and Washington emerged from the van and struck Baxter on the side of the head several times with an ice scraper. No charges have been filed against Washington.

At the conclusion of the physical confrontation, Washington pointed a finger into Baxter's face. According to Baxter, Washington jabbed so aggressively that he pushed his finger into Baxter's mouth. The police description of the incident contends that Baxter added that detail after the fact. In either case, Baxter said at that point, in "a gut reaction," he bit down, lacerating Washington's finger. Washington sought emergency room treatment, while Baxter went home and treated his own injuries. Baxter acknowledged his HIV-positive status when contacted by Washington's ER physician.

"There's only two known cases of HIV transmission through a bite, and both of those involved bleeding mouths, not saliva," said Baxter, adding that his HIV viral load has been below detectable levels for several years. "There was no need to treat (Washington) aggressively for high-risk HIV exposure." However, the emergency room doctor recommended such treatment to Washington.

Baxter is open about his HIV status, but his attorney is moving to suppress that information in the trial.

Baxter is also a local leader in the Critical Mass bike ride.  Critical Mass is a worldwide effort active in more than 100 cities. Held at evening rush hour the last Friday of each month, Critical Mass tries to assemble as many cyclists as possible to ride through urban areas. The tactic is divisive within the cycling community. Opponents contend that the traffic-slowing tactic and the Friday rush-hour timing alienates and angers more people than it educates and persuades. Supporters use the slogan "we ARE traffic" and say it's important for cyclists to assert their right to be on the road.

"(The police) think it represents anarchy," said Baxter. One cyclist was arrested during a 2006 Critical Mass ride in Iowa City and charged with interference with official acts for not following an officer's instructions. The cyclist maintained he was simply trying to leave the ride, but pleaded guilty as he was moving out of state.

While Baxter is concerned about his legal expenses, a potential civil suit, and a possible 30-day jail term, he's still focused on bike and pedestrian safety. He cites his own small community of University Heights, an enclave surrounded by Iowa City that is well known for its rigorous enforcement of the speed limit. Baxter notes that as cars cross a bridge over railroad tracks that mark the line between Iowa City and University Heights, they immediately change speed. "It shows that when you enforce the law, people slow down."

No comments: