WENATCHEE — A simple fender-bender between a Wenatchee police officer and a 22-year-old motorist has led to claims that police unfairly ticketed the driver and tried to deflect blame for the accident.
On July 9, Officer Jeff Ward pulled his marked patrol car out of the Sav-Mart parking lot to turn south onto North Wenatchee Avenue. In the center turn lane of the five-lane road, his car collided with a northbound 1989 Honda Accord driven by Daniel R. Arias, scraping the bumpers of both.
Arias found himself cited for three traffic infractions. His lawyer, Paul Webber, contests all those charges, pointing to flaws in a police report by Ward’s superior and a dashboard video that seems to show Ward failing to stop as the other motorist approaches.
“Even if there’s no impropriety, there’s a large appearance of impropriety,” Webber said. “… I’m quite surprised they didn’t call an outside agency, like East Wenatchee, to investigate.”
The accident is under review by the Wenatchee Police Department to see if disciplinary action or retraining are necessary, said police Capt. Doug Jones. Assistant city attorney Michael Bradford argued in a court brief that police handled the matter properly: “There is no evidence that any governmental misconduct occurred by any of the witnesses or investigating officers,” he wrote.
According to police reports and briefings filed in Chelan County District Court, Ward’s front bumper grazed Arias’ rear bumper as Ward turned south while Arias traveled north in the center lane. Cars in the two right-hand northbound lanes had stopped to allow Ward to exit after he inched his car out toward the street, making it “impossible for Mr. Arias to see Officer Ward’s vehicle cutting across Wenatchee Avenue,” Webber wrote in a brief.
Ward, with Ke$ha’s “Crazy Kids” playing on his car stereo, activated his emergency lights and followed Arias to the Sonic parking lot at Wenatchee Avenue and Walnut Street. There he summoned Wenatchee Police Sgt. Cherie Smith to investigate the accident.
Smith ticketed Arias, who had no license with him, for improper lane use, driving without insurance and driving on a suspended license — the latter based on a check of his driving record in California.
Smith’s report said fellow police officer Brian Bolz was “at or near Sav-Mart when the collision occurred.” She wrote that Bolz saw Arias enter the center lane south of the “turn pocket” and accelerate rapidly.
The report did not identify Bolz as a police officer, and Webber said Bolz provided no written statement and other nearby witnesses were not interviewed. Smith’s report also erred in noting which side of Ward’s fender struck Arias’s car.
Dashcam footage viewed by The Wenatchee World shows Ward’s car continuing forward as Arias’s vehicle appears in the frame, then turning right to follow Arias after the accident. The dash camera timestamp records the accident at 7:49 a.m., although Smith’s paperwork puts the time at 3:45 p.m., eight hours later.
A week later, Smith wrote a letter urging District Court judges to dismiss the improper lane use charge she pressed against Arias. “After review of the video, I do NOT believe that Arias was traveling improperly in the two-way left turn lane,” she wrote.
Jones said Monday he couldn’t comment extensively on the handling of the crash and the internal review. When a patrol officer is involved in a traffic accident, he said, “The sergeant is the one that writes up the initial details of the accident, and it comes to the admin, which would be me, to take action on that.”
Webber said Ward caused the accident but was not cited, and Ward’s use of his emergency lights while following Arias amounted to an unlawful seizure of Arias’s vehicle. Bradford argued police lights can also be used to caution other vehicles near an accident scene, and their use did not amount to a traffic stop.
“The drivers were required to stop and exchange information anyway,” he wrote in his filing.
But Bradford was removed from the case Sept. 17, after disclosing that Ward contacted him ahead of a court hearing to “let him know what happened” in the accident. Webber claimed the contact made Bradford a witness after the fact, while Bradford said it was a privileged exchange between attorney and client.
Judge Nancy Harmon ordered the city to appoint a new prosecutor in the case, but no replacement had been named in court as of Monday. Jones said he wasn’t aware of the contact between Ward and the city attorney’s office; Bradford did not return multiple calls for comment.
The case is due for another hearing Oct. 22. Jones said the review of the crash could be finished this week. The Wenatchee World requested a copy of Ward’s dashcam footage Sept. 16, but the WPD records department said Monday it might not be released until Oct. 19.