Ex-Officer Convicted of Misdemeanor in Crash that Injured Motorcyclist

By Alan Burdziak

Dearborn Press & Guide

DETROIT - A former Southgate police officer was acquitted Thursday in Wayne County Circuit Court of one felony and one misdemeanor but convicted of failing to yield for traffic, a misdemeanor.

Mitchell Heaney, 26, was charged in connection with a crash while he was driving a red 2000 Mercury Cougar at 5 a.m. Aug. 22. Heaney turned in front of Rockwood resident John Carter, 56, as he was riding his 1999 Harley-Davidson Road King at the intersection of Telegraph and Sibley roads in Brownstown Township. Carter, who was driving 50 mph, collided with the car and hit the road, puncturing one of his lungs and breaking two bones in his lower left leg and three ribs.

Heaney was cleared of felony charges of hit and run and causing impairment of a bodily function. His sentencing is May 3 in circuit court. Heaney avoided the maximum five-year prison sentence for the felony charges, but faces about 90 days in jail for his misdemeanor conviction.

A Southgate police officer at the time, Heaney was off duty when it happened. He was subsequently fired after an internal investigation. Part of the Cougar's bumper, including the license plate, fell off, eventually leading police to Heaney.

In his closing argument, Michael Woodyard, Wayne County assistant prosecuting attorney, said the evidence suggests that Heaney had reason to believe he was in a crash. He said that the testimony from an expert witness is unreliable because they will never know what really happened because a thorough crash investigation was never conducted.

Woodyard said certain things are not disputed in the case, including that Heaney was driving the car Carter hit and that Heaney turned in front of him. He contested that Heaney, who had been drinking that night, could have been drunk or at least not thinking clearly.

"I don't know why (Heaney) thought he could make it," Woodyard said. "I don't know why he thought he could cut in front of the motorcycle."

Defense attorney Mike Rataj said the prosecution did not meet its burden of proof. He used Woodyard's comments that they won't know what happened to show that, in his opinion, the police work was shoddy. And, the lead investigator testified that evidence was contaminated.

"It's poor police work at its worst," Rataj said.

Rataj also argued that Heaney's actions after the crash are not consistent with someone who had just seriously injured another person and was trying to get away. Heaney stopped immediately at the BP gas station at the intersection before driving away and made no attempt to hide the car, Rataj said.

Brownstown police Sgt. Thomas Dayfield completed his testimony before an accident investigation expert and Heaney himself took the stand in the final day of the trial.

Heaney testified that he had no idea there had been a crash.

He said he had a few drinks that night, but denied being drunk. He also began to cry slightly as he answered questions from his attorney and said had he known there was a crash, he would have stopped to help Carter, called 911 and blocked traffic.

Christopher Zuellig, a veteran crash investigator for the Detroit Police Department, was admitted as an expert and criticized the work of Dayfield and other officers on the case.

Zuellig said photos should have been taken of the car and the scene, and a crash investigation should have been conducted. He said the car was contaminated when it was towed and the piece of the bumper that fell off was also contaminated because a tow truck driver handled it. It became impossible to know if any damage had been done to the bumper after that or if damage to the car was done while it was being transported.

"You have to maintain chain of custody," Zuellig said. "That's very crucial, especially in the case we're in now."

Dayfield testified Wednesday that evidence was contaminated.

The point of impact was contested by Rataj. Carter testified that he hit the side of the car, while Rataj said the evidence showed a "glancing blow" that was enough to make the motorcycle slide forward about 100 feet. Had he hit the side of the Cougar, Rataj said, he would have come to a stop or deflected and not kept going in the same direction.

Zuellig agreed with Rataj that Carter "brushed" the bumper.

Dayfield responded to the fact that he had not given Heaney a sobriety test when he came in contact with him at about 8 a.m. the day of the crash.

"There's no way I could, in my experience as a law enforcement officer, show that he had consumed alcohol at the time of the accident," Dayfield said.