A California appellate court has upheld the conviction and sentencing of Dr. Thompson, the physician who was convicted and sentenced to prison for the 2008 assault on two cyclists for deliberately stopping in front of them on a downhill stretch of Mandeville Canyon Road. Dr. Thompson, now prisoner Thompson, was sentenced to five years in prison with no probation and ordered to pay $20,000 to each of the cyclists for their legal fees. His appeal contended that the trial court erred in allowing testimony about an earlier, similar incident in which another cyclist had a similar encounter with Thompson on the same road. He contended that the incidents were not alike and that allowing that testimony was prejudicial to his trial. He also went with the standard appellate argument that he was ineffectually represented at the trial coupled with a challenge to the trial court’s decision not to grant him probation and to pay the victims’ legal fees. Finally he stated that he served 68 days in pre-trial custody but in his sentencing had been given credit for only 67 days.
The appellate court determined that prisoner Thompson can count and granted him the one day credit, but rejected the balance of his appeal.
The following article was originally published in the author’s OutSPOKEn column in the Jan/Feb 2010 edition of Southern California Bicyclist magazine. Updated information appears between brackets.
In October and November of this year  there was a flurry of coverage in the general media as well as in cycling magazines and web sites on the issue of road rage directed at cyclists. This sudden concern for rider safety was due to the trial and subsequent conviction of Dr. Christopher Thompson in LA Superior Court for road rage incidents on Mandeville Canyon, a popular cycling venue near where Dr. Thompson lived at the time. Dr. Thompson currently resides at a correctional facility while he awaits sentencing now set for January . There was a lot of good coverage of the details of the case available on-line, and I suspect many of my readers have seen some of it already so I will only provide a brief summary. Dr. Thompson was found guilty of six felonies including assault with a deadly weapon (his car) stemming from two confrontations with cyclists on a downhill stretch of Mandeville Canyon. In the first incident Dr. Thompson was accused of trying to run some riders off the road and then braking suddenly in front of them. In that incident the riders were able to take evasive maneuvers and escape injury. Nevertheless the riders filed a police report with a description of Dr. Thompson’s car.
Then on July 4, 2008 he did it again but this time two riders were not so lucky. On that date the riders heard Dr. Thompson’s car approaching fast. He then swerved around the riders yelled at them to ride single file. The riders responded by cursing at him and flipping him off. Dr. Thompson then abruptly braked in front of them and one rider went through the car’s rear windshield and the other rider crashed as well. Both cyclists were badly injured.
The responding police officer testified that Dr. Thompson told him, “The bicyclists flipped me off and yelled back. I pass them up and stopped in front to teach them a lesson. I’m tired of them. I’ve lived here for years and they always ride like this.” At his trial Dr. Thompson attempted to change his story somewhat by testifying that he thought he had pulled over sufficiently in front of the cyclists, and all he was trying to do was to take a photo of them to file a complaint. He also introduced expert testimony about the instability of bicycles perhaps trying to show that the riders crashed themselves. Apparently the jury did not “buy” these defenses particularly when the prosecution was able to introduce evidence about the earlier incident. Dr. Thompson now faces imprisonment of up to ten years. [He eventually was sentenced to five years].
Given the “half life” of news I want to discuss three lessons learned from this incident before it fades from our memory; 1) the need to complain about road rage, 2) cyclists’ conduct when confronted by road rage, and 3) things we can do to avoid the growing problem of road rage directed at us.
In the Mandeville Canyon incident the riders who had the prior confrontation with Dr. Thompson had made the effort to file a police report with a sufficient description so that the detectives were able to connect the earlier incident with Dr. Thompson. Common sense let alone my personal experience as a lawyer has me convinced that made a huge difference in the outcome of this case. This was no accident; this was a crime. A lot of us have been the victim of road rage, but few of us have taken the step to file a police report. Earlier this year I was deliberately “buzzed” by a young male riding a motor scooter who crossed multiple lanes and swerved into the bike lane to scare me. He succeeded. I was first startled then enraged that I did not get enough information to have filed a useful police report. When I later read about the Mandeville Canyon incident and recognized the importance to the outcome of the earlier report, I recalled my scooter incident and I am disappointed in how I handled myself. Thinking about it I realized that the solution was in my jersey pocket—my cell phone with its camera. Most of us ride with cell phones and most nowadays have cameras. We should take pictures of the assailants out there and then file police reports. It may not help in our confrontations, but it could make a difference down the road.
The July 4 cyclists victims did not conduct themselves well when Dr. Thompson came barreling down the road at them. They flipped him off and cursed at him. I understand the fear and rage that can lead to that reaction. We have all seen it and many of us have acted the same way. Let’s think about for a moment, and maybe having thought about it, perhaps next time we will behave differently and situations won’t escalate. Would any rider in their right mind consider flipping someone off or cursing at anyone who was pointing a gun at them? The rider could be totally in the right, but when confronted with someone armed with a deadly weapon discretion is the better part of valor. So why do we feel safe flipping off a crazed driver of what to a rider is definitely a deadly weapon—a car/truck? In a car-bike confrontation the cyclist invariably loses, it is a matter of physics.
Cyclists may be in the right, but in a confrontation we are the ones who end up crippled or killed. I can appreciate the sense of frustration that accompanies following my suggestion that cyclists not confront drivers, but I never heard of someone dying or spending days in the hospital after having surgery to repair a case of compound frustration. In any event most of the time the issue is not deliberate road rage, but inattentive driving, something every driver on occasion is guilty of. Confronting the inattentive driver with a one-fingered salute followed by an intense four letter word discourse may morph that negligent driver into a prospective road rage assailant when s/he later encounters other cyclists.
If you take a look at Dr. Thompson’s above quoted statement to the police he referred to the cyclists using the words “them” and “they.” To him, and many other drivers, cyclists are a group who take up the road, block traffic and are at the very least a nuisance. Once cyclists are no longer considered individuals but rather a stereotyped “them” there are those out there like Dr. Thompson who are willing to “teach us a lesson.” During wars the military dehumanizes the enemy so that its soldiers can fight the battles. We need to strive to avoid being dehumanized by drivers as some homogenous them, because in the road wars us cyclists are decidedly unrmed. I assume just about all the readers of this column are drivers and just about every adult we know drives a car. As cyclists take the opportunity to inform all the drivers you know that you are a cyclist and you are among the prospective “them” that are out along the roads riding clad in Lycra wearing a helmet and funny shoes. Tell them about what it is like to ride with inattentive drivers or drivers that get too close and discuss the issue of road rage and how it impacts you. I have got to believe the more drivers out there who can associate a face with a cyclist the less likely they are to base their conduct on stereotypes and behave badly when they encounter “them” cyclists on the road.
In the aftermath of Dr. Thompson’s conviction several cyclists have suggested in postings on web sites that his punishment should include the permanent loss of his driver’s license, and being forced to ride a bike for transportation. While I am not suggesting that is an appropriate total punishment, I could see how that may be an element of his parole. He would learn firsthand what cyclists encounter.