Crime & Courts

In Kansas, thousands shouldn't drive, but do

The accident occurred just after midnight Saturday, July 24. It never should have happened. Sixty-eight-year-old Robert C. Hughes — known around Wichita as Bicycle Bob because he rides everywhere, at any hour, in any weather — was pedaling west on Central.

A few blocks before Hughes reached Woodlawn, a vehicle described by witnesses as a maroon Dodge Dakota hit him from behind and left the scene, police said.

Hughes suffered critical injuries.

Police said they found the truck and its owner behind a North Woodlawn business.

Demauria M. Stephens, the 29-year-old who police allege was the driver, shouldn't have been behind the wheel.

In January, after a series of violations, the state revoked Stephens' driver's license for three years. Since 2007, the Kansas Department of Revenue has suspended his license five times.

Still, Stephens kept driving — and getting caught without a license, records show.

Thirteen days before the accident on East Central, an officer cited him for having no driver's license and no proof of insurance.

"We could literally fill the Sedgwick County Jail" with people driving on suspended licenses, said Wichita Municipal Court Judge Bryce Abbott.

The problem defies an easy solution because much of it hinges on people's continued irresponsible decisions, Abbott said.

Many people keep driving despite suspended licenses because they are "hard-headed," he said. Many say they have to drive to get to work. Too often, violators don't respect that driving is a privilege, Abbott said.

"Basically, they're not going to stop," he said.

"Sometimes it's a calculated risk on their part, and sometimes it's thumbing their nose at the system."

The consequences can be severe. Abbott cited a national study finding that 20 percent of fatal crashes from 1993 to 2000 involved at least one driver being unlicensed or without a valid license.

Hughes remained in critical condition for days after the accident before improving to fair condition. He was released from Wesley Medical Center early last week and has been transferred to another medical facility.

About four hours after the accident, police booked Stephens into jail, where he was held for a couple of days on suspicion of felony hit-and-run and driving with a revoked license.

It's not known if he will be charged. Police will present their investigation to prosecutors, who will determine if charges could be filed, said Lt. Joe Schroeder, who oversees traffic investigations.

As standard procedure, police took a blood sample from Stephens and are awaiting test results, Schroeder said.

Neither Stephens nor Hughes could be interviewed for this article.

Violators face jail

State records show that nearly 183,000 people have suspended, revoked or restricted licenses.

Some suspensions stem from failing to pay fines. Some motorists lose their licenses because of repeated traffic violations.

City and state laws call for minimum jail sentences of five to 90 days depending on whether it is a first, second or third offense of driving on a suspended license. Some of the punishment can be served on work release or house arrest.

"You would think that would be enough," to keep people from driving with a suspended license, Abbott said.

One driver that Abbott has dealt with has had dozens of charges of driving with a suspended license.

When the man, appearing in court, realized that he was facing a jail sentence, Abbott said, the man "looked me in the face" and said, "Man, are you really going to do me that way?"

"I sent him to jail for six months."

Cases against Stephens

It's not clear how much time Stephens might have spent in jail.

Sedgwick County District Court records from three cases in 2008 and 2009 show him receiving jail sentences of five to 25 days for a combination of convictions: driving with a suspended license, driving without a license and no proof of insurance. Those sentences would have been suspended if he paid fines within a certain period, but there is no indication in the records that he paid the fines, ranging from $200 to $1,000.

He also has a pending District Court case accusing him of driving while a habitual violator.

Since July 2007, police have cited him 13 times — 10 times for having no driver's license and three times for driving on a suspended license, Municipal Court records show. Of the 13 city cases, he was found guilty six times, charges were dismissed six times, and one case is pending.

Officers also cited him for traffic violations that included running stop signs, driving over the speed limit, failing to signal a turn, driving with a defective headlight and having no proof of insurance. He was found guilty of five of the traffic-violation charges; seven other traffic-violation charges were dismissed.

In Municipal Court cases against him in 2007 and 2008, Stephens was required to pay fines ranging from $161 to $880, records show.

A recent citation

Wichita police policy calls for booking someone into jail for driving with a suspended license, Schroeder said.

Municipal Court records show that in the July 11 traffic stop, 13 days before Hughes was struck on Central, Stephens wasn't cited for driving with a suspended license, even though the state had revoked his license in January.

In that traffic stop, Stephens was cited for no driver's license and no proof of insurance, which by itself would not normally result in him being taken to jail.

It's hard to say why, on July 11, Stephens wasn't ticketed for driving with a revoked license, Schroeder said. Sometimes, the computer system can be down, so officers can't do a thorough license check, and sometimes officers have to expedite traffic stops because of a heavy call load, Schroeder said.

Even if Stephens had been cited for driving with a revoked license, Schroeder said, "Most likely, he would have been out of jail long before the accident occurred."

It would have been weeks or longer before he would have appeared before a judge.

For years, Hughes has been a common sight on Wichita streets, bent over his bicycle frame, often wearing cut-off shirt sleeves, his sinewy legs churning.

When he stopped, it was often to check out a garage sale.

Under a city ordinance, at night a bicyclist must have a white light on the front of his bike and a red reflector on the back.

Schroeder said he didn't know if Hughes had the proper illumination when the vehicle struck him. The police report did not say.