It was a hit-and-run accident with devastating effects. The victim, a Sacramento running legend, suffered five facial fractures, a fractured skull, a broken hand, two broken teeth and serious lacerations over much of his face and upper body.
Somewhere out there, the man responsible for the grievous injuries sustained by Bill Finkbeiner, 61, is escaping justice.
Sacramento authorities have the cellphone of the person who plowed into Finkbeiner on June 13. Described as a Caucasian male in his early 40s with sandy brown hair, the man dropped the device before he fled without saying a word or even looking at his victim, witnesses said.
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But Sacramento County parks rangers can’t open the cellphone because they haven’t been able to get a search warrant. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office says a search warrant hasn’t been obtained because the California vehicle code is not clear on whether this case actually qualifies as felony hit-and-run. If the DA can’t determine a felony occurred, a search warrant can’t be issued to access the phone.
Mind you, Finkbeiner has been incapacitated by his injuries, a serious financial blow to a self-employed commercial landscaper who earns his living through his hard work. Moreover, the Auburn resident has suffered a great personal loss as well. A member of the Sacramento Running Association Hall of Fame, Finkbeiner, who has competed in dozens of 100-mile “ultramarathon” races, had run every day of his life since Jan. 1, 1980 – a streak of 37 years.
That record ended with a sickening thud in an incident that Finkbeiner said he never saw coming. “I knew the streak would end one day, but not like this,” he said this week while convalescing in an easy chair, looking fruitlessly for an angle of repose that would ease his pain.
So why all the confusion over the California vehicle code?
Because Finkbeiner got creamed by a man riding a bicycle on the American River Parkway. And in the days since, the DA’s office has been unable to determine if the law allows for a felony prosecution of a hit-and-run in which the vehicle is a bike and the location of the incident is a bike trail.
“We’re unsure whether the statutes related to hit-and-run apply to a person riding a bike on something other than a typical highway (or street),” said Steve Grippi, chief deputy of the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office.
The DA wouldn’t be able to file lesser charges against the suspect because they would never find him without unlocking his phone. And they can’t unlock his phone without being able to prosecute for a felony.
Grippi said his office has not made a final determination whether it can move forward with felony criminal charges. According to the California Vehicle Code, bicyclists riding upon a “highway” have all the rights and responsibilities of someone driving a car. In the state vehicle code, a highway can be a street, a parking lot, or anyplace that is “publicly maintained and open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel.”
Does a concrete trail on a levee on the American River Parkway qualify as a highway under the vehicle code? At least for now, Grippi said his office is not certain if it does. So until they figure this out, the cellphone containing the identity of the man who injured Finkbeiner sits in a drawer belonging to the county park rangers.
If the ultimate determination by the DA is that they can’t prosecute, then someone in the California Legislature needs to tighten the language in the state vehicle code to make sure no other Californian is victimized as Finkbeiner has been.
Finkbeiner was walking near the Campus Commons Golf Course when he was struck from behind, slamming him face first onto the concrete and causing him to lose consciousness. “Bill was knocked two or three feet off the ground,” said his longtime friend Bill Hambrick who witnessed the collision.
The blow came so fast, and was so unexpected, that Finkbeiner didn’t have time to break his fall. “He was flying through the air with his hands behind his back,” Hambrick said.
Witnessed described the man who hit Finkbeiner as appearing “disheveled.” He wasn't riding a lighter bike favored by cyclists in training, but an older and heavier bike. Some of Finkbeiner’s friends wondered if the man was homeless, but there was no way of knowing that without identifying him.
Finkbeiner remembers bits and pieces of the incident. “I recalled immediately that there was blood,” he said. “I tried to sit up but I could feel the hands of my friends trying to keep me still. I heard, ‘Bill, it’s worse than you think.’ ”
Finkbeiner and his friends were traveling north on the parkway trail. Finkbeiner concedes he was walking on the right side of the trail and should have been on the left in the pedestrian lane. But what happened to him still shouldn’t have happened.
The man who hit Finkbeiner was in such a hurry to get away he dropped his cellphone, which Finkbeiner’s friends used to call paramedics.
Finkbeiner required surgery to repair a broken thumb. His recovery will take months. His face is so fragile that even the slightest cough or sneeze causes great discomfort. “The worst part have been the headaches,” he said. They keep him up at night. He requires constant help from family members.
Finkbeiner isn’t able to work and his friends have started a GoFundMe account for him: www.gofundme.com/bill-finkbeiners-recovery-fund.
For what it’s worth, Finkbeiner said he doesn’t feel malice toward the man who injured him.
“I’m not really mad at the guy,” he said. “I’m just frustrated.”