DA can’t prove criminal conduct in downtown road altercation that led to driver’s arrest

DA can’t prove criminal conduct in downtown road altercation that led to driver’s arrest

SW Jackson just before Broadway.

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s office has decided they won’t move forward with criminal charges against a woman arrested for what was initially thought to be an intentional act of road rage.

Celine Geday was arrested by Portland police officers on April 3rd and charged with Assault in the Second Degree for her role in a collision in southwest Portland. According to the Portland Police Bureau, Geday was driving her car on SW Jackson when she and Brian Groce got into a verbal altercation. Groce claimed she almost cut him off. Then, after he caught up to her and told her about it, he claimed she intentionally rammed him as they both entered SW Broadway. Groce suffered lacerations and minor bruises.

Based on an initial investigation, PPB officers had the probable cause they needed to arrest Geday and make the charges. However, as we reported a few days later, Geday was released shortly thereafter because the DA felt there wasn’t enough conclusive evidence to hold her.

Ms. Geday’s behavior cannot be proven to be reckless. She drove in her designated lane of travel and attempt to remove herself from the earlier angry encounter with Mr. Groce.
— Multnomah County District Attorney

Now the DA has completed their review and investigation of the case and we’ve received a copy of their findings.

In a memo dated May 23rd, Christopher Ramras, Senior Deputy District Attorney, explains why they’ve decided to reject criminal charges against Geday. The memo contains new details about what might have led to the collision and sheds light on often complicated task of determining fault in road rage cases.

According to the DA’s investigation, Geday was leaving a parking space on SW Jackson Street as Groce was riding up from behind and “she may have come close to hitting Mr. Groce.” That alleged near-miss caused Groce to become angry and he yelled at her. She honked back and then pulled out and drove away (eastbound, toward Broadway). When she came to a stop at SW Broadway, Groce, “still angry about the initial confrontation” reads the DA memo, “decided he could catch up with Ms. Geday at the intersection to continue to express his displeasure at her nearly hitting him.”

At this point, the DA says, both parties were “roughly parallel” as they entered SW Broadway; but instead of riding up on the right side, Groce was on the left side of Geday’s car. Here’s the DA’s full account of what happened next (emphases mine):

He rode his bicycle into the intersection of SW Broadway, placing himself on the driver’s side of Ms. Geday’s car, roughly parallel with her as they entered the intersection. Ms. Geday was lawfully within her lane of travel and he deliberately entered the same lane on her left side rather than remain behind her car. His bicycle impacted with the driver side mirror housing, causing Mr. Groce to crash and injure his face on the pavement. Ms. Geday claims that Mr. Groce rode his bicycle into her mirror and Mr. Groce claims that Ms. Geday deliberately hit him with her car.

The legal issue here is whether the state can prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Ms. Geday intentionally or knowingly struck Mr. Groce with her car. (Remember, this threshold for the DA is legally higher than the “probable cause” required by police to make an arrest.)

To determine their decision the DA and detectives met with witnesses and interviewed by Geday and Groce at length. They also analyzed physical damage to the car and the bicycle.

The DA found witness testimony wasn’t as strong as initially thought: two of the three key witnesses didn’t even see the impact. Here’s an excerpt about what witnesses observed:

The one witness who saw the collision indicates that she thinks Ms. Geday swerved to the left, causing the impact. This witness could not describe any real change in the angle of Ms. Geday’s car and states that the car “immediately” straightened out after the impact. This leads one to conclude that if Ms. Geday swerved to the left, it was very minimal in nature. Further, the impact point on the exterior housing of the drive side mirror indicates that there was minimal contact between Ms. Geday’s car and Mr. Groce’s bicycle. The third witness did not see the actual collision and could not state whether Ms. Geday hit Mr. Groce or whether Mr. Groce ran his bicycle into Ms. Geday.

The DA explained that it’s possible Geday could have swerved slightly to the left because “a driver tends to steer towards an object that they are looking at or focused upon, even if they are not aware that they are doing so.” In the DA’s mind, Groce put himself in a dangerous situation by “illegally leaving his proper lane of travel to ride alongside the driver’s side door in order to continue to verbally engage with Ms. Geday after she had already left the scene of their initial encounter.” This would have startled Geday, causing her to involuntarily flinch and/or veer slightly left.

Yet another possibility for the collision, the DA says, is that Groce might have leaned slightly into Geday’s car window in order to verbally engage her.

The prior records of both parties (Groce with a conviction for assault and arrest for disorderly conduct and Geday an arrest for assault) was also mentioned in the DA’s memo as a factor that could negatively impact their credibility during a trial.

In the end, here’s how the DA explains why they are unable to prove any criminal conduct by Geday:

“Ms. Geday’s behavior cannot be proven to be reckless. She drove in her designated lane of travel and attempt to remove herself from the earlier angry encounter with Mr. Groce. If anything, his act of leaving his proper lane of travel to catch up to Ms. Geday and ride alongside her driver’s side was closer to behaving “recklessly” than Ms. Geday’s conduct.

In summary, the State cannot prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Ms. Geday acted “intentionally”, “knowingly” or “recklessly” and thus cannot prove that she committed a crime. This was an angry exchange between two people that initially ended with no injury to either party. Ms. Geday drove away from the initial verbal conflict, thus removing herself from a hostile situation. Mr. Groce chose to prolong the hostile conflict by chasing after Ms. Geday, leaving his proper lane of travel and placing himself in a position of great risk. The resulting collision was extremely unfortunate, but the State cannot prove that it was the result of criminal conduct.”

I think this story is valuable not only in understanding the legal issues around road altercations, but also because it reminds us that these type of stories are often much more complicated than we think. Keep this in mind next time everyone gets worked up at the next “Road rage!” headline.

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