No TV magic in traffic fatality investigations

Santa Clarita Valley sheriff's deputies secure the area around a body on Sierra Highway after a vehicle fatally struck a pedestrian Monday evening. Austin Dave/The Signal

Most crimes are solved in 48 minutes – if you’re watching television. In contrast to the punchy primetime dramas, it can take weeks for real life investigations to conclude.

“It’s night and day,” said Santa Clarita Sheriff’s Station Sgt. Scott Shoemaker.

“There’s no comparison.”

Typically, fatal collision investigations – like the Oct. 6 crash on Golden Valley Road that claimed the life of a Santa Clarita mother – take much more than the hourlong time slot allocated to gritty Hollywood crime dramas on television.

Three Los Angeles Police officers join three California Highway Patrol officers at the scene of a fatality on southbound Interstate 5 near the 405 freeway interchange on Aug. 10, 2017. Austin Dave/The Signal

Drawn to Scale

The amount of time it takes to conduct a thorough and proper analysis directly correlates with the required standard procedure in place for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

When a traffic fatality occurs in Santa Clarita, the county coroner’s office is notified and a specialized team of sheriff’s deputies are dispatched to the scene.

One of the team members, known as the “handling deputy” is assigned to manage the scene.

Before tow trucks and cleanup crews can touch the scene, evidence is preserved and documented. A collision report is conducted and the handling deputy sketches a diagram of the site, logging each measurement and piece of wreckage to scale.

It is meticulous work, Shoemaker explained. The amount of time it takes to complete this phase of the investigation often depends on the size debris field – the larger and more widespread the incident, the longer it takes.

In many cases, a detective and a sergeant are asked to respond to assist with the collection, Shoemaker said.

Detailed 3-D scans are taken from several different points, giving a color representation of the scene to examine at every angle.

When these procedures are completed, crash victims are transported to the Los Angeles County coroner’s headquarters in Boyle Heights.

The wreckage is cleared, the team disbands and the investigation moves to its next phase.

A Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station cruiser enforces a barricade outside the scene of a deadly crash involving a motorcyclist and a two-door coupe on Sierra Highway near College of the Canyons on June 14, 2017. (Austin Dave/The Signal)

The ‘black box’

It’s a small heavily fortified silver device embedded into most automobiles in America that provides insight into the moments leading up to a traffic fatality –– it’s the “black box” of cars.

Among many details, the computer records a vehicle’s specific speed, turning and braking input, and can tell investigators probing through its data whether seat belts were worn or not at the time of the crash.

“It helps,” Shoemaker said. “The box can be used to benefit the party under investigation or it can be used to the detriment to the party.”

The device can be used exonerate innocent parties and, more often than not, to identify fabricated elements within an individual’s testimony.

“If someone said they were going 20 mph, we can get a download of the car showing they were going 100 mph,” Shoemaker said.

In addition to the black box’s findings, the traffic investigation team will canvas the area surrounding the crash scene to find surveillance video and traffic cameras.

“If there’s a question of the identification of the driver, video surveillance helps to show a specific driver behind the wheel of the car,” Shoemaker said.

The team will also examine the past history of each driver involved in the crash. Investigators typically pay close attention to any records of bad driving, at-fault collisions and previous driving under the influence charges.

Traffic investigators from the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station probe a fatal crash on Kelly Johnson Parkway in Valencia Thursday morning. Austin Dave/The Signal

A different path

With fatalities involving controlled substances, primetime TV often gives the indication that a breathalyzer test is conducted and the inebriated suspect is booked and charged.

That’s mostly a myth and not exactly true. If alcohol or drugs were suspected to have played a role in the crash, a slightly different approach is taken, Shoemaker explained.

The process to obtain a California driver’s license requires the applicant to consent to chemical tests of blood, breath or urine for the purpose of determining alcohol and drug content in accordance with section 13388 of the state vehicle code.

However, under the Fourth Amendment, the person suspected of driving under the influence can fight the implied law.

In that case, investigators can file for an immediate McNeely Warrant, Shoemaker said, referring to a special court authorization obtained to collect evidence in a timely manner.

“It can be filled out and sent to a judge, who reads it, and agrees to sign it,” the sergeant said.

The warrant is taken to hospital and the suspect is legally compelled to provide a blood sample.

The sample is transported to the sheriff’s station and booked into evidence before it is sent off to the county’s crime forensics laboratory.

Standing between the two mangeled big rig cabs, first responders are surrounded by lemons as thye use shovels to absorb diesel fuel at the scene of a crash where two people were killed and a third person injured after two tractor-trailer trucks collided on Highway 126 at Chiquito Canyon Road Tuesday morning. Signal photo by Dan Watson

An expectation of immediate justice

In some cases, before any arrests can be made, the investigative team must wait for the blood test results to be sent back.

“Part of problem is if they make an immediate arrest, they have 48 hours to present all the evidence to the district attorney’s office,” Shoemaker said. With an endless backlog of tests, results from the county crime lab can be delayed for more than three weeks.

“Our lab is the lab for the entire county,” Shoemaker said. “They get blood for every sheriff’s station in Los Angeles County and sometimes outside agencies.

“There’s a lot of blood results they have to go through.”

Investigators suspect alcohol may have played a role in the Oct. 6 crash that killed 37-year-old Katie Evans. Contrary to local media reports, however, no suspects have been officially named or arrested in the case.

Though the community’s patience is wearing thin, Shoemaker made it clear – these investigations take time for a reason.

“In certain cases, people expect immediate justice,” Shoemaker said. “We want it done the right way and we want to make sure we have a solid case.”

When the county’s crime lab completes their analysis, the criminalist who tested the sample signs off on the results and a senior technician verifies their findings. The remaining blood is sent back to the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station for future purposes, Shoemaker said.

With liberty and justice for all

Much like any long-running crime drama, the second half of the story is carried by the judicial system after three or four commercial breaks. In reality, the time it takes to reach this point in the investigation is least four or five weeks.

When the investigation team receives the results from the crime lab, they turn the case over to the county’s law team.

“We provide the filing packet to district attorney for them to review,” Shoemaker said. “The D.A. can either file or decline the case.”

If charges are filed, the person deemed responsible for the crash is arrested.

A sheriff’s deputy investigates the scene of a fatal traffic collision on Oct. 7, 2017. Austin Dave/The Signal

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