By Lois Henry
When I heard about the "punishment" handed down to Kern County Sheriff's Deputy John Swearengin, my first thought was: Good ol' boy justice strikes again.
But, actually, the 480 hours of community service and three years probation Swearengin received for mowing down two people as he sped through Oildale in his patrol car back in 2011 isn't outside the norm for similar cases.
Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your 2 cents in by calling 842-KERN.
Just a few months ago, the Kern County District Attorney's office handled a case where a truck driver turned left through a stop sign directly into the path of an oncoming motorcyclist in broad daylight on Edison Highway. The driver got 30 days work release, summary probation and 150 hours community service.
Going back a ways further, a GET bus driver who flattened a pedestrian in a downtown crosswalk because she "just didn't see him" was tried on a misdemeanor charge and walked.
There was the case in 2001 when a 17-year-old driver was distracted and killed cyclist Norm Hoffman on Fairfax Road. The boy got three years of probation and 100 hours of service with a juvenile program.
Even further back, a local attorney recalled trying a case where a truck driver ran a red light turning into the oil refinery on Rosedale Highway and killed two people on a motorcycle. He got credit for time served, no community service.
And the list goes on.
Even when people do wildly stupid things that result in death, if they're not drunk, high or engaging in some other illegal activity (i.e., texting or street racing), the punishment just isn't that severe.
So, did Swearengin get a pass because he's a cop? No, I don't see it.
This is a conservative county, I was reminded by Deputy DA Mike Yraceburn. When you go after a cop, you have to have a strong case.
He referred to a 2012 case he prosecuted against Shafter police officer Matthew Shelton, who was accused of brutality and lying in a 2009 incident. Videotape showed Shelton beating an 18-year-old man suspected of vandalism with his baton despite the fact that the man was on the ground and not resisting. Shelton's report claimed the man had cut his head after Shelton was forced to throw him to the ground.
After two trials, Shelton was convicted only of filing a false report and got three years' probation. He was acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon charges.
"Shelton drove home the point that there's an extra burden on the prosecution when you're trying an officer who's done something in the line of duty," he said.
Swearengin was speeding to a call where his fellow officers were engaged in a fight with a suspect, Yraceburn said.
Beyond that, the very nature of this case makes it tough to get a conviction.
It was an accident.
Sure, Swearengin made mistakes like not flipping on his lights and siren. And he should be held accountable for that.
But, ironically, dumb mistakes are also what make it difficult to get convictions on these kinds of cases, Yraceburnsaid.
All drivers make dumb mistakes.
Admit it, at one time or another, you've looked up from the radio or a crying kid in the backseat and screeched to a halt inches from someone's bumper, heart pounding, hands clenched on the wheel, thinking, "Thank GOD!"
"You put 12 of those people in the box and then start talking about how the victims in this case were wearing dark clothing and they were impaired and Swearengin was just trying to do his job," Yraceburn said. "I had to weigh all that."
When Kern County Superior Court Judge John Lua denied use of a reprimand letter in Swearengin's file warning him not to drive in a hazardous manner, Yraceburn said, the felony charge deflated and hurdles toward a misdemeanor conviction grew.
The reprimand letter was a linchpin, Yraceburn said. It could be used to show Swearengin wasn't driving fast out of necessity but because he was reckless.
As an aside, this is the same judge who allowed the DA to present evidence of Anna Marie Reynosa's previous speeding tickets in her recent trial for killing Charla Wilkins in 2012.
The DA had charged Reynosa with felony gross vehicular manslaughter but couldn't prove she was texting at the time she rammed into Wilkins. Instead, the jury convicted Reynosa of regular negligence, a misdemeanor, which comes with a maximum year in jail.
Lua had tried to sentence the unremorseful, party-hearty Reynosa to 220 days in jail, three years of supervised probation and 400 hours of community service. She opted for the year in jail, where she will likely only do six months because of early release rules.
Which goes to show how tough it can be to drum up serious punishment in these kinds of cases.
Yraceburn didn't see Swearengin's reprimand letter as any different from Reynosa's prior speeding tickets. But Judge Lua did.
"So, I was left with speeding, which in itself is simple negligence," Yraceburn said.
At least with the plea deal, he said, Swearengin is tagged with a criminal conviction. And the community service is no joke.
"It's going to take him a while and it's going to be uncomfortable for him," Yraceburn said. "It was the only way I could think of to put him in a position of having to remember what he did to earn this 480 hours.
"That still doesn't equate to two lives, I know. I'm not happy about it."