No jail time for driver of car that killed bicyclist

There will be no justice for Carl Cutler, the John’s Island resident who was riding his bicycle along North A1A on Memorial Day weekend 2021 when he was fatally struck by a car that inexplicably veered off the road.

John Rampp, the driver of the car that killed Cutler, will spend no time in prison, since he was not charged with a crime.

The case against Rampp, in fact, was closed last week, when he entered a no-contest plea to a careless driving violation and County Judge Nicole Menz found him guilty, imposed a $1,000 fine and suspended his license for six months.

She did her job, making sure Rampp didn’t escape at least some culpability for his betrayal of the implied trust drivers, cyclists and pedestrians place in each other on our roadways.

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for the rest of our legal system, which prohibited Menz from doing more.

Florida law defines careless driving as the failure to drive in a “careful and prudent manner … so as to not endanger the life, limb or property of any person.”

Rampp certainly was guilty of that.

Should he have been charged with reckless driving, a considerably more serious offense that, depending on circumstances, can be either a misdemeanor or felony and punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine?

According to the applicable statute: “Any person who drives any vehicle with willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.”

Florida courts have interpreted those words to mean drivers must be acting purposefully with intentional indifference to the consequences that could result from their recklessness.

Merely being negligent behind the wheel, however, does not meet Florida’s standard for reckless driving.

That’s where the system failed, much to the dismay of more than 100 of Cutler’s friends and John’s Island neighbors, who were confused, disturbed and even angry after a Florida Highway Patrol investigation determined Rampp’s conduct on that ill-fated morning wasn’t criminal and issued a $148 traffic ticket for careless driving.

After the FHP finally released its Traffic Homicide Report in March – 10 months after the May 29, 2021 crash near the Pelican Island Wildlife Sanctuary – Jim Altieri, one of Cutler’s neighbors, led an effort to demand the State Attorney’s Office intervene in the case and conduct its own investigation.

They wrote to State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl, as well as State Rep. Erin Grall and State Sen. Debbie Mayfield, citing a gaping hole in the FHP’s investigation, which left unanswered the question that mattered most:

What caused Rampp’s car to veer off the road?

Was he texting-while-driving or otherwise engaged with his cellphone – reading emails, scrolling through Facebook, watching videos – when his attention should’ve been focused on the road, especially while approaching a cyclist is the bike lane?

Was he adjusting his radio? Or was he reaching for some object and his lean caused the car to drift?

We don’t know.

We don’t know because the FHP’s 18-page report, written and submitted by Corporal Bradley Meer, never tells us why the car left the roadway.

The only explanation in the report comes from Rampp, who told FHP Corporal William Fenton at the scene that the car in front of him passed Cutler, causing the cyclist to swerve into the roadway and Rampp “did not have any time to react.”

The crash’s lone witness, however, said he was six car-lengths behind Rampp and saw no other vehicle pass Cutler before Rampp’s car veered from the roadway and into the bike lane over a period of several seconds.

Also, the diagram in the FHP report indicates Rampp’s car veered into the bike lane and crashed into Cutler.

“Rampp was obviously distracted at the moment of the accident,” Altieri wrote to Assistant State Attorney Bill Long, the Vero Beach-based prosecutor Bakkedahl assigned to the case.

Altieri, an attorney who said he was acting solely as a spokesman for Cutler’s friends and neighbors, wrote that he reviewed the FHP report and was shocked to find no mention of any forensic examination of Rampp’s cellphone, particularly with Florida supposedly committed to a crackdown on distracted driving.

In this case, a presumably distracted driver took the life of a physically fit, active, 63-year-old retired investment broker who divided his time between the Greater Philadelphia area and the 32963 island.

“Why was that neither mentioned nor pursued in the investigation?” Altieri wrote.

“What, if anything, was he asked about his cell phone? Under the circumstances, the police obviously had probable cause to impound his phone and take whatever steps would have been necessary to determine if it was in use that morning.

“What questions were asked?” he added. “What answers were given? Did the police simply take the word of a serial driving offender that all was well in his cockpit?”

A Vero Beach 32963 investigation into Rampp’s driving record revealed last fall that he had a long history of traffic offenses dating back to 1988 and twice had his license suspended.

Altieri also was puzzled by the State Attorney’s Office’s refusal to question Rampp, interview the eyewitness and challenge Rampp’s version of what caused the crash, writing that the driver “lied” when questioned at the scene, “fabricating a story about a phantom second vehicle.”

He asked if Rampp had been “confronted about that deception.”

Closing the case without putting those questions to Rampp was essentially giving the driver a “hall pass,” Altieri wrote.

Both Bakkedahl and Long, though, said last week the FHP never sought their counsel because the state troopers who investigated the crash had determined it was an accident.

It wasn’t until Altieri and his group contacted the State Attorney’s Office earlier this summer that Bakkedahl asked Long to review the FHP report.

Upon doing so, Long defended the FHP’s decision to cite Rampp for careless driving, explaining in an email to Altieri and his group that there was no evidence to sustain a criminal charge under Florida law.

He sent to Altieri a series of appeals-court rulings to bolster his decision.

“If you read the materials,” Long wrote, “you will see previous defendants whose conduct greatly exceeded that of Mr. Rampp were found to not have driven in a reckless fashion.”

Long did express sympathy for Cutler’s death, admitting that if he were in Altieri’s position, “I cannot say I would handle things any differently or be any less upset.”

In a separate email to Altieri, however, Long wrote that the FHP report presents an “insufficient factual and legal basis” for a criminal charge against Rampp, and that his oath of office prohibits him from prosecuting cases that he knows he can’t win.”

Despite the strong emotions surrounding the crash, Long wrote that he has “no doubt” a judge would dismiss the case before it got to a jury.

He’s not wrong.

But could the State Attorney’s Office have reopened the investigation to determine what caused Rampp to veer off the highway?

Yes, but Bakkedahl said the population boom along the Treasure Coast – Port St. Lucie is the seventh-most-populous city in Florida – has produced an increasing case load and his office, with only three investigators to cover the four-county circuit, lacks the manpower to devote to such a mission.

Besides, he added, it’s unlikely a second look at the case would’ve changed anything, even if his investigators uncovered the digital evidence needed to prove Rampp was using his cellphone when his car drifted into the bike lane.

“I doubt very much it would’ve mattered,” Bakkedahl said, citing the current standard for proving reckless driving.

Again, the system failed, this time on the legislative level.

This past winter, a Florida Senate bill that would add texting-while-driving to a class of traffic violations that constitute “aggressive careless driving” – an offense that would become criminal in cases of property damage, bodily injury or death – went nowhere after clearing one committee.

Had that law been in place, prosecutors here might’ve responded differently to Cutler’s friends and neighbors, though a motorist must commit at least two traffic offenses simultaneously or in succession to be charged with aggressive careless driving.

The FHP might’ve treated the crash as a crime and not an accident.

As it played out, Altieri did manage to convince Bakkedahl to send a prosecutor to court last week to counsel and observe Meer – a move that probably induced Rampp to not challenge the careless driving citation.

“It’s almost unprecedented for this office to send an attorney to court for a civil infraction,” Bakkedahl said, “but we didn’t want him to get off scot-free.”

As fate would have it, Rampp was arrested in April on felony weapons charges stemming from a March incident that had no connection to the fatal crash. Cutler’s friends and neighbors are monitoring that case, wondering what justice will look like this time.

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