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Originally published August 18, 2009 at 12:08 AM | Page modified August 18, 2009 at 12:13 PM

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Court rejects Seattle traffic law

A Seattle ordinance that criminalizes traffic violations when someone is seriously hurt or killed was found by the state Court of Appeals on Monday to be invalid and unenforceable because it conflicts with state law.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Clinton Wilson wasn't drunk or high, nor was he driving recklessly on a September morning in 2006 when he made a left turn and drove into the path of an oncoming cyclist.

The helmet Susanne Scaringi was wearing did little to lessen the impact of slamming broadside into Wilson's van. The 27-year-old suffered a head injury and died hours later.

King County prosecutors declined to charge Wilson with a crime. But eight months after the fatal crash, the city of Seattle charged him with misdemeanor assault for causing Scaringi's death by failing to yield the right of way — using a city ordinance that on Monday was found by the state Court of Appeals to be invalid and unenforceable because it conflicts with state law.

Wilson was "devastated" by the Sept. 27, 2006, accident that claimed the life of Scaringi, a cycling enthusiast who was commuting from her West Seattle home to her job downtown at the time of the crash, said his attorney, Bob Goldsmith.

"It's been very tough on him — he's a nice man in his 50s and he had a perfect driving record" until the accident, Goldsmith said. "He cooperated with the police, his insurance company made a settlement with her family. He did everything a person is supposed to do — and the city jumps on him."

Wilson was convicted of assault in Seattle Municipal Court and was given a two-year deferred sentence, said Goldsmith.

Wilson appealed to King County Superior Court, which ruled that the city ordinance was invalid because it violated a state law that decriminalized most traffic offenses, according to the appellate court's opinion published on Monday. The City Attorney's Office then requested the Appeals Court to conduct a discretionary review.

Under state law, there are about 60 traffic-related crimes, including vehicular homicide and assault, driving while intoxicated, racing and reckless endangerment of roadway workers. While failing to yield the right of way is a traffic infraction, it is not among those considered a criminal traffic offense.

In 2005, Seattle created a new ordinance that criminalized certain traffic infractions, but only if someone was seriously injured or killed as a result, according to the opinion.

In Seattle, vehicles being driven "in close proximity to bicyclists and pedestrians sometimes results in appalling carnage," according to the opinion of the three-judge panel. "The Seattle ordinance appears to be an effort to lower the priority that motor vehicles presently enjoy in the competition for use of the public streets."

The Appeals Court judges found that "any act" that constitutes a traffic violation may not be classified as a crime based solely on the result — a serious injury or death.

"Seattle cannot classify failure to yield the right-of-way as a criminal offense merely by defining the 'act' in a way that encompasses a particular result of the act," the judges wrote.

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They concluded that the Seattle ordinance conflicts with the Revised Code of Washington's Title 46, the section that deals with laws governing motor vehicles, and is therefore "invalid and may not be enforced."

Given Monday's opinion, Goldsmith expects Wilson's criminal conviction will be expunged from his record.

It's unclear whether the city intends to appeal to the state Supreme Court or revoke the ordinance from its books. City Attorney Tom Carr "needs time to digest" the Appeals Court opinion before deciding how to proceed, Ruth Bowman, his special assistant, said Tuesday.

"At this point, I don't think Tom has even had time to look at the ruling," she said.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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