Jury sides with citizen in CHP trial
After almost a year of court dates and hearings, on Wednesday Larry Cotcher walked out of the El Dorado County Superior Courthouse a free man.
In a case where many defendants would have pleaded to a misdemeanor charge, the Cameron Park resident proclaimed his innocence and demanded a jury trial. Cotcher was arrested in September 1998 for reckless driving and resisting arrest while traveling home to Cameron Park from South Lake Tahoe on U.S. Highway 50. The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office also filed a felony charge of battery on a police officer causing injury, claiming that during the arrest the officer aggravated an old shoulder injury that eventually forced him to seek disability retirement.
Both the prosecutor and defense agreed that the heart of the case was an issue of credibility. Who would the jury believe, Cotcher or California Highway Patrol Officer John Chenoweth.
After 2 1/2 hours of deliberation, the jury returned late Wednesday afternoon with a verdict of not guilty on all four counts.
“The general feeling was that there was a lot of discrepancies in both testimonies,” said juror Lauren Bronson Yaghlegian. “But the jury didn’t feel that the defendant’s behavior constituted a criminal act.”
Officer Chenoweth testified that he saw Cotcher cross over the center line, tailgate another vehicle with his high-beam headlights, and drive in excess of 70 mph while Cotcher was traveling west on U.S. Highway near Johnson Pass Road. The officer said he followed Cotcher and was about to initiate a traffic stop near Tamarack Pines Road when Cotcher voluntarily pulled to the side of the road.
Chenoweth said Cotcher immediately got out of his car and headed toward the patrol car in an aggressive manner. After a brief dialogue, Chenoweth said Cotcher pushed him with his hand and headed back to the cab of his truck.
Cotcher took the stand during the three-day trial and told a drastically different account. He denied all of Chenoweth’s allegations. He said that even though there were no yellow lines on the road due to construction, he never crossed into the other lane and never exceeded the speed limit. Cotcher also vehemently denied touching Chenoweth. He did admit to leaving his car and questioning the officer.
Yaghlegian said the fact that Chenoweth followed Cotcher for several miles before turning on his lights had an impact on the jury’s decision.
“Just the fact that he waited so long to pull him over. If he was really that reckless why would the officer wait so long. I definitely don’t think the cop was a bad guy, but maybe he didn’t handle the situation in the best way.”
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The reopening of U.S. Highway 50 starts 8 a.m. today for residents and property owners in preparation for its full opening 8 a.m. Tuesday.