CHP denies request for 911 recording in fatal crash involving judge

Columnist Margaret Bengs. Photo taken November 18, 2008.
Columnist Margaret Bengs. Photo taken November 18, 2008. rbonnafon@sacbee.com

The California Highway Patrol said this week it will not immediately release a recording of a 911 call made by a Sacramento Superior Court judge after he hit a bicyclist in a fatal crash a month ago.

In response to a California Public Records Act request made by The Sacramento Bee last week, CHP Dispatch Supervisor Cortney Walker said the act allows law enforcement agencies to withhold information if the release “could jeopardize the successful completion of an ongoing investigation.”

She said the CHP would reconsider the request when the agency completes its investigation of the Nov. 2 crash involving Judge Matthew Gary. CHP officials have said the investigation should be completed by the end of the year.

According to the agency’s original account, Gary was making a left-hand turn in his Toyota Tundra from a stop sign onto Fair Oaks Boulevard when he hit a bike ridden by Margaret Bengs, who died in the hospital the next day. The 66-year-old Bengs had worked as a speechwriter for former Gov. George Deukmejian and former Attorney General Dan Lungren, and she was an op-ed contributor to The Bee.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the CHP is not required to release the recording, but added that nothing in the law prohibits its disclosure. Given the public interest in how the CHP is handling the investigation of a judge, he said the agency should release the recording, especially since the investigation does not appear to involve criminal activity.

“Unless there’s some particular reason other than just trying to save the judge from personal embarrassment, some specific legal reason, they should be releasing it, because it is a matter of public interest,” he said. “The people will want to know if he’s getting preferential treatment.”

Gary has repeatedly declined to discuss the crash, and the CHP has said it is conducting an impartial investigation.

Bengs’ family and bicycle advocates have criticized the agency’s handling of the case. The CHP initially said Bengs appeared to be responsible, in part because she was not wearing a helmet. A witness who comforted Bengs after the crash said the cyclist was wearing a helmet, while advocates said whether she had a helmet or not was irrelevant to determining responsibility.

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