A Kern County Sheriff’s deputy should be charged with vehicular manslaughter in connection with the deaths of two pedestrians last December, a 10-month investigation by the Highway Patrol’s elite accident reconstruction team has concluded.
The deputy was driving his patrol car at 80 mph without his red lights on, in a 45-mph zone he knew was frequently crossed by pedestrians, according to the report by the CHP Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team.
The case is under consideration by the District Attorney’s Office, which will decide whether to file charges.
The 200-plus-page report says Deputy John Swearengin, 35, was primarily responsible for the accident that killed Chrystal Jolley, 30 and Daniel Hiler, 24, on Dec. 16, 2011.
The report cleared the pedestrians of blame in the accident. “These two victims were legally crossing the street,” said David K. Cohn, the attorney representing the Hiler family. “They had every right to do what they were doing at the time that they were killed.”
Swearengin was on duty in a marked sheriff’s patrol car when he slammed into the two, who were crossing Norris Road at about 7:32 p.m. It was dark, and the two were pushing a broken-down motorcycle across the road near Diane Drive, where there are few streetlights.
Although the patrol car’s headlights were on, its red and blue roof lights were not, according to the CHP report.
Swearengin said he was going to assist another officer but, the CHP report says, without his emergency lights on, he was required to follow the same driving rules as any other driver.
“He’s treated in that situation no differently than you and I would be treated,” said Cohn, the Hiler family attorney. “He is responsible for obeying all traffic laws.”
The report is now with the Kern County District Attorney’s Office.
"It's no different than any other case," said D.A. Lisa Green. "We will review the reports and make a decision about which, or whether any charges, will be filed." The charges could be either misdemeanor or felonies.
The report says:
Based on the investigation, it is the determination of the California Highway Patrol, Party 1 (Swearengin) violated California Penal Code Section 192(c) (1), vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.
Swearengin was determined to be the primary cause of this collision. He showed "gross negligence" at the time of the collision, based on the following:
---Party 1 (Swearengin) drove Vehicle 1 (Ford) 84.9 mph on a roadway posted with a 45-mph speed limit.
---The collision occurred during hours of darkness.
---The placement of signs in the area clearly indicated the posted 45 mph speed limit.
---The placement of signs in the area clearly warning of possible pedestrian traffic.
---Party 1 (Swearengin) has worked as a Kern County deputy sheriff for five years and had patrolled Oildale (the area of the collision) for four years. He stated he was familiar with the area, and familiar with seeing pedestrians in the area.
---As a sworn Kern County Deputy Sheriff, Party 1 (Swearengin) understood the provisions of California Vehicle Code Section 21055 (Exemption of Authorized Emergency Vehicles) which states in essence the driver of an emergency vehicle is exempt from the rules of the road if he sounds a siren as reasonable necessary and the vehicle displays a lighted red lamp visible to the front as a warning to other drivers and pedestrians.
---Party 1 (Swearengin), while en route to an emergency call, chose not to activate his forward red lamp or his siren to warn other drivers and pedestrians as he drove well above the posted speed limit through a populated residential/business area.