Appeal court sends suit against CHP back to Yolo County

Oscar Alfaro’s family saw no point in suing Thomas M. Roberts Jr., who was under the influence of alcohol and drugs when he caused an accident that cost Alfaro his life.

Roberts was a 50-year-old uninsured motorist driving a car with expired registration tags; he had little or no resources, a criminal past and was likely headed to prison.

Shortly after 10 p.m. on Aug. 3, 2010, Alfaro died trying to avoid a multivehicle pileup on Interstate 505 near Winters in Yolo County. The motorcycle he was riding went down on the shoulder, and Alfaro was thrown off and plunged 34 feet from a bridge over Putah Creek.

Moments before, Roberts had triggered a series of crashes after slamming into the median, going out of control and hitting a guardrail at the bridge abutment. The car spun back into the traffic lanes and was hit from behind by another southbound car. The two cars came to rest blocking two lanes, and one of them was struck by a third car.

In addition to the 48-year-old Alfaro’s death at the scene, Roberts’ 4-month-old grandson, Daniel Roberts, who was a passenger in Roberts’ car, died of his injuries days later at UC Davis Medical Center.

Roberts is serving an 18-year prison sentence on no-contest pleas to two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter, plus enhancements based on his prior record.

Seven months after the bloody wreck, Alfaro’s family was surprised to learn while attending a preliminary hearing in Yolo Superior Court on the charges against Roberts that a California Highway Patrol officer had stopped Roberts for speeding approximately 90 minutes before the smashup. The officer then discovered Roberts did not have a valid driver’s license.

Officer Justin Sherwood let him go without citing him. Sherwood was later to say there was no indication Roberts had been drinking.

There is no mention of the traffic stop in the CHP report on the subsequent incident that cost two lives.

Alfaro’s widow, Rachelle DeVore, approached the prosecutor at the preliminary hearing and asked if she should consult an attorney about filing an action against the CHP for failing to prevent the accident.

The prosecutor told her it would be a hard case to prove because the officer had discretion about impounding the vehicle, and the several members of the Roberts family present in the car would have been stranded. The prosecutor also offered the opinion that it would not be easy to find an attorney to take the case.

But DeVore retained an attorney, and she and her adult daughter, Steffani Hix, sued the CHP and Sherwood, alleging that, because Roberts had no license, Sherwood should have impounded his vehicle. Had the officer done so, DeVore and Hix believe, Alfaro would still be alive.

Through their attorney, the women sought in August 2011 to file a late administrative claim, but the CHP denied the request the next month. The CHP also declined to give the women’s attorney a copy of a video and audio recording of the Roberts stop that equipment in Sherwood’s patrol car had automatically captured. The CHP claimed the recording had on it “nonpublic” information that could not be redacted and insisted the agency had no other information relating to the stop.

Yolo Superior Court Judge Daniel P. Maguire threw the civil matter out, ruling that DeVore and Hix failed to consult an attorney and did not file the administrative claim within the six-month statutory period. He said that, had the deadline been met, “the facts of this tragic incident suggest civil liability.” But, he concluded, the women “have not shown reasonable diligence in pursuing the claim.”

In a published opinion Wednesday, a three-justice panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal reversed Maguire and sent the case back to him. The panel directed Maguire to grant the women’s request to file a late claim and declared that Maguire “abused (his) discretion.”

Given their lack of awareness of the Sherwood stop until March 2011, the women’s delay in applying to file a late claim “was reasonable,” and the law clearly allows for such circumstances, the panel ruled.

The three justices, however, did point out in an opinion footnote that DeVore and Hix may still be facing an insurmountable legal obstacle. The justices cited a 2008 opinion of the 3rd District holding that the Vehicle Code section providing that a peace officer “may” impound the vehicle of a person driving with a suspended or revoked license does not “impose a mandatory duty that could be the basis for a (legal) action against a public entity.”

Wednesday’s majority opinion was authored by Associate Justice M. Kathleen Butz, who was joined by Acting Presiding Justice Cole Blease.

Associate Justice Louis Mauro wrote a combined concurring and dissenting opinion. For the most part, he agreed with his colleagues, but disagreed on a point with no bearing on the ultimate outcome of the appeal in this specific case.