Officer should be fired for driving 121 mph in fog, causing death of Modesto man | Opinion

Stanislaus County Deputy Sheriff Eric Fulmer must be held accountable for causing a deadly accident while driving 121 mph in predawn fog.

It’s disappointing that he escaped potential criminal liability in the January 2022 death of 21-year-old Saul Betancourt of Modesto. But Fulmer should still face consequences. He should lose his job.

Fulmer braked 1.5 seconds before broadsiding Betancourt’s Camaro at nearly 90 mph near Newman, according to a CHP report that Bee reporter Erin Tracy obtained and that rightly found Fulmer primarily responsible for the accident.

Although Fulmer’s department-issued Nissan Maxima with flashing lights was “most likely not visible to Betancourt,” the report said, Betancourt had rolled through an intersection at 6 mph, an action deemed an associated factor in the collision. That sliver of responsibility probably saved the off-duty detective from facing prosecution, but it shouldn’t have.

In District Attorney Jeff Laugero’s first opportunity since his 2022 election to hold a law enforcement officer liable in someone’s death, Laugero sided with the officer.

The DA gets points for fully and transparently explaining his reasoning to Tracy, something his predecessor, former DA Birgit Fladager, was loathe to do after the many times she refused to go after officers whose actions killed others.

Laugero wasn’t confident, he said, that his attorneys could convict Fulmer of vehicular manslaughter for various reasons, including weather conditions, an off-duty sergeant’s opinion that Fulmer’s speed was not excessive and Fulmer’s excuse for speeding. He said he was rushing to help a fellow deputy fighting someone in Newman, and Fulmer thought of Ronil Singh, an officer gunned down there during a traffic stop in 2018. On the way, Fulmer should have heard radio traffic indicating that other officers were closer than Fulmer, but he kept going — until the crash.

It’s unfortunate that Laugero, a former policeman, didn’t even try.

The CHP conclusion is logical: If you drive 121 mph in the fog — so fast that others can’t see you, even with sirens blaring and your lightbar flashing — and you crash into someone, it’s your fault.

Gross negligence, negligence or innocence rightly should have been a decision for a jury of Fulmer’s peers. That’s how weighty matters are decided in a society committed to rule of law.

At least try lesser charge

If Laugero didn’t think a felony conviction was realistic, he might have at least brought a misdemeanor charge. That would have demonstrated — in an era of heightened sensitivity to police behaving badly — that a new authority is in town, one who does not believe that someone with a gun and a badge can do no wrong.

Earlier this month, a Sacramento police officer was charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for pulling a U-turn in October without lights or siren in front of a motorcyclist, who died after slamming into the patrol vehicle. In letting that play out in court — whatever the outcome — the Sacramento County DA’s office made the right call.

Fulmer is not entirely absolved, however. He and the Sheriff’s Department face a civil wrongful death lawsuit brought by Betancourt’s survivors, one of whom suffered serious injuries in the same crash.

More immediate is the question of Fulmer’s employment. After recovering from serious injuries suffered in the crash — the deputy was not wearing a seat belt — he returned to duty for a time, but at some point was placed on paid leave. One wonders whether that coincided with the CHP finding Fulmer mostly responsible, or with the Sheriff’s Department’s own conclusion that driving fast and furious violates department policy.

That policy does not allow deputies to disregard others’ safety, even when using lights and sirens, and says they must reduce speed at intersections. Severe discipline is in order.

Because Fulmer’s actions violated department policy, resulting in death, it is appropriate that he be dismissed from duty.