Monday, February 8, 2010

No Criminal Charges in Fell Street Pedestrian Fatality, Yet DA's Office Finds "Fault was Split, Fault was Joint"

  • See related post here about SFPD pedestrian stings at dangerous NOPA intersections.

Memorial to Melissa Hope Dennison on Fell Street

The San Francisco District Attorney’s office will not file criminal charges against the motorist who struck and killed Melissa Hope Dennison while she was crossing Fell Street last September. Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Brian Buckelew told BIKE NOPA in an interview last Friday that the DA’s office determined that “a criminal case could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt.” However, Buckelew added, “There was fault split between the driver and the pedestrian; the fault was joint.”

Melissa Dennison, 24, of San Francisco was a recent San Francisco State University graduate, according to friends who spoke with the San Francisco Examiner (Sept. 16. 2009) after she was killed on the morning of September 15th. She died at the scene. The driver of the vehicle that struck her is a 19 year-old man who was driving his Honda Civic to work from his home on the Peninsula. His mother accompanied him.

Dennison’s death occurred at a time when North Panhandle and Alamo Square residents were renewing their efforts to persuade the city to slow the frequently speeding traffic on Fell Street. The Fell and Broderick intersection is also just a block away from the still-standing freeway-style SFgo sign that neighbors objected to as a potential visual cue to motorists to increase their speed on the residential corridor. As reported in Streetsblog, bicycle and pedestrian advocates are now urging the State of California to enact “vulnerable road user” legislation that will increase penalties when a motorist carelessly or inattentively drives and injures or kills a pedestrian or cyclist.

“Not a Hit and Run Case”

“This was a really tragic accident,” ADA Buckelew said. He prefaced his remarks by noting “it’s my understanding” and then explained that this was not a hit and run case. “The driver drove around the block and perhaps panicked, but then he returned.” The driver’s passenger, his mother, explained the delay in returning to the scene to an officer in a statement given after she and her son were taken to SFPD Park Station for questioning. The officer wrote in the SFPD Incident Report, “As they got to the intersection of Broderick they believed they hit a person after the window caved in. She repeatedly asked to him to go back to the scene while they made several trips around the block.”

Motorist’s Speed a Factor

Buckelew said the motorist was travelling at a speed that was “less than originally thought,” referring to media reports on the day of the crash that Dennison had been struck with considerable force by the motorist. (The Incident Report concludes that the “force of impact caused Party #2 (pedestrian) to be propelled into the air with upper part of body contacted the right front windshield and hood of vehicle #1 (the driver).” But the ADA later stated, “I believe in the report speed was a contributing factor” that prompted the decision that the “fault was split” between the motorist and Dennison.

The driver, in his statement to SFPD, estimated his speed as 35 to 40 mph, and he noted that, as he approached the intersection, “the light had just turned green.” The speed limit on that section of Fell Street is 30 mph. An SFPD officer who arrived at the scene soon after the crash noted in the incident report that “it was still dark with overhead luminated lighting.”

Against the Light but in the Crosswalk?

Buckelew said Dennison “seemed to dash” into the street although the light was green for westbound Fell Street traffic. Although the ADA first stated that Dennison “was not in the crosswalk,” he later qualified that assessment by noting that the driver of the vehicle that hit her was the only witness to state Dennison was outside the crosswalk. “The driver put her just outside the crosswalk; she was close to the crosswalk,” Buckelew concluded.

However, the driver’s statement included in the Incident Report appears to contradict that conclusion. “Prior to the intersection of Broderick Street, he (the driver) observed the light had just turned green and a SUV stopped in front of him at the intersection. To avoid from making contact, he turns into lane 3 (the far right lane). He does not see the pedestrian in the crosswalk and hits the pedestrian and keeps going.” The SFPD officer who wrote the narrative for the report also refers to “Party #2 (pedestrian) walking northbound in the crosswalk.” In addition, the incident diagram included in the report, shows the driver had entered the west-side crosswalk and that Dennison was in the crosswalk travelling toward the north side of Fell. The diagram does not show a specific point of contact. It should be noted that the investigation of the crash continued after the initial accident report was filed. The driver of the SUV did not remain at the scene or give a statement to the police.

Factual Diagram, SFPD Incident Report, Collision at Fell & Broderick Streets

SFPD representatives did not indicate whether a re-enactment of the collision had been staged as part of the investigation. But, in a few brief moments, the driver noted that the light had “just turned green,” he entered the intersection at 35-40 mph, and the pedestrian had already reached the far right lane, more than 2/3 of the way across the width of the street. Had Dennison started crossing the street, in or very close to the crosswalk, at the very end of her right-of-way light?

The right-of-way (determined by the traffic signal and pedestrian crossing light) is more important for determining fault than whether the pedestrian was in the crosswalk. Manish Champsee, president of WalkSF, has emphasized that California state law states that an intersection need not be marked to be considered a crosswalk. And, as SFPD Lt. Lynn Tomioka told Streetsblog on the day of the collision, “Whether she was in the crosswalk or not, the driver needs to proceed with caution.”

“Very, Very High Blood Alcohol Content”

Laboratory tests undertaken after Melissa Dennison’s death found that she had “very, very high blood alcohol content,” according to Buckelew. The ADA did not indicate any similar findings for the driver.

“A Delay in Evaluation”

Melissa Dennison was killed on September 15th. Captain Teresa Barrett of SFPD Park Station explained that “when there’s a hit-and-run case, it goes from the station to downtown.” The initial statements from witnesses were taken at Park Station, but the investigation was conducted primarily by the Hit-and-Run unit. Inspector Laurie Caddigan of the unit explained that investigations of cases such as this can sometimes continue for several months and include an autopsy and full medical report. For this case, Caddigan told BIKE NOPA on December 8th of last year that the department’s legal division “was going to make some reports,” but her unit’s investigation was completed.

Brian Buckelew told BIKE NOPA that “there was a delay in evaluation” in this case, and he indicated that the responsibility of both parties (“fault was split, fault was joint”) was the cause of extensive examination and consideration within the District Attorney’s office.


Two parties – a motorist and a pedestrian – crashed in a tragic incident on Fell Street. The actions of both are judged at fault, to unstated degrees. The pedestrian died. The motorist may have suffered emotional distress from the collision, but he will not be penalized or fined and his license will not be suspended. At least not in criminal court proceedings. Even his name has not been revealed. Perhaps this sad and unfortunate event on NOPA streets will spur the discussion of new legislation for "vulnerable road users" as a means of authorizing consequences for a motorist when a degree of fault is determined.**

For several weeks following the death of Melissa Dennison, friends maintained a memorial at Fell and Broderick streets.

* Contact Information:

  • Public Affairs, District Attorney’s Office: (415) 553-1751
  • Public Affairs, SFPD: (415) 553-1651; SFPD District Stations info here
  • Record Room (to request a SFPD Incident Report, once the case is closed: (415) 553-1386
** For a review of vulnerable road user legislation, see this article at the site of the Virginia Bicycling Federation.


  1. How can absolutely NOTHING be charged to a driver who hits a pedestrian? How about at least involuntary manslaughter?

  2. Was there any reason given as to WHY the dude didn't see a pedestrian in the crosswalk?

  3. @troymccluresf: No reason was given by the driver in his statement, and no indication in the Incident Report that he was asked why he didn't.