Dustin Valenta’s Lawyer Pressures Police to Identify Hit-and-Run Driver

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The site of Dustin Valenta's crash in Wicker Park. Photo by John Greenfield.

Frustrated by what he sees as passivity by the Chicago Police Department in tracking down the pick-up truck driver who ran over bicyclist Dustin Valenta on February 8 then fled the scene, Valenta’s lawyer is attempting to force the city to identify the motorist. Attorney Michael Keating has named the city of Chicago as a “Respondent in Discovery” in a civil suit against the unknown driver.

On March 20, Keating received red light camera footage of the pick-up from the Chicago Department of Transportation via a Freedom of Information Act request. Keating immediately forwarded the video to the CPD’s Major Accidents Investigation Unit, asking that the police use their video enhancement equipment to isolate the license plate number from the blurry footage.

Almost two weeks later Keating has gotten no response to his request, even though a witness has confirmed that the truck in the video was the one that ran over Valenta. He said that naming the city as a respondent in the lawsuit will force the CPD to share any information they have about the identity of the perpetrator. “I’m not asking for the sun, moon and stars here,” he said.

Slowed-down footage of the pick-up truck running over Valenta from a Citibank security camera. Video courtesy of Keating Law Offices.

Valenta was pedaling northwest past Artemio’s Bakery, 1443 North Milwaukee in Wicker Park, when a motorist in a parked car doored him. He fell into the road and was then run over by the pick-up, suffering a cracked skull, broken shoulder blades and hip, 23 cracked ribs and a punctured lung. Valenta is recovering remarkably well from this near-death experience.

The responding police officer ticketed the first driver but, oddly, instead of citing her for the dooring, charged her with violating an ordinance requiring motorists to yield to people on horseback. The collision wasn’t reported to Major Accidents until two weeks later, which Keating said delayed the search for the truck driver.

Keating is suing the first motorist, Jeaneane Quinn, as well as the hit-and-run driver, named as “John Doe” in the lawsuit. He explained his strategy in naming the city as a respondent. “The Respondent in Discovery statute is typically used to get a company or organization to identify one of their own employees or agents,” he said. “However, I thought this was a good use of this tool given that the City of Chicago has the ability to provide us the information.” The city has the option of responding or objecting to the discovery request. If they object, Keating plans to ask the judge to order them to respond.

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Still from red light camera footage of the pick-up truck that ran over Dustin Valenta.

Officer Steve Sesso from Police News Affairs confirmed that Major Accidents has reviewed all available video but has not yet identified the pick-up truck or its driver. He added that due to the low quality of the footage it may be impossible to make out the license plate, even with the enhancement software.

Asked whether he thinks it’s possible the CPD is intentionally moving slowly on the case because he has been regularly criticizing the department in the media for their lack of initiative, Keating said, “I don’t think I’ve been beating them up much at all relative to their absurd failures. I think that the CPD is aware that mistakes were made at the scene when Major Accidents was not called, and the case wasn’t investigated properly. My guess based on what I’ve seen is they want this to just go away.”

  • BlueFairlane

    My strong suspicion is that it would take “CSI” or “Mission Impossible”-level technology to get a readable license plate from that image, and we don’t live on a TV show. I just don’t think there’s enough information there to squeeze anything out of. Keating’s going to be disappointed here.

  • Blair

    So the red light camera quality is good enough when ticketing a motorist for running a red light, but not good enough to figure out who ran Dustin over?

  • Anonymous

    When a red light is run, a still camera with higher resolution takes a picture to get the plate number.

  • Exactly.

  • That’s not exactly a bad thing. Otherwise the police would be able to track every vehicle in the city, which would bring its own set of problems. Just because it doesn’t help in this case doesn’t make a surveillance state a good thing.

  • While those shows have hardly believable technology, I wonder what technology really does exist.

    Also, when you have several frames (from a video), there is more clarity in identifying small objects (like license plates or people’s faces) than there is from a single still (especially when that still is from interlaced video).

  • BlueFairlane

    Caveat: I’m no expert, and I don’t work for the FBI, so they might have James Bond magic gizmos I don’t know about. I am skeptical, but you never know. For the moment, though, I’ll talk out my posterior.

    It would seem that the smallest amount of information you could retrieve from an image like this depends entirely on pixel size, as you can’t go back and make up information. I pulled this image into photoshop, and at this distance from the camera, the plate is about 25 pixels by 10 pixels. That would make the width of the lines making up the characters on a typical Illinois plate about a half-pixel wide. Even advanced software isn’t not going to be able to get an image of something a half-pixel wide, as the information just doesn’t exist. NASA can’t even do that. A full character would be 2 pixels by 5 pixels, a very difficult arrangement from which to extract a readable number or letter. This particular image has the additional problem of showing very little contrast in the plate … when magnified, there doesn’t appear to be anything on the plate. It’s all varying shades of the same color, with a darker blob toward the upper right of the plate. I don’t think the camera “saw” the characters on the plate at all. (I’ll experiment and see if I can upload a magnification of the plate.)

    Now, the idea of overlaying several frames from a video of a moving image may offer some information to work with, especially if the truck moves through different lighting conditions or the angle of the plate to the camera changes. At most, though, I would think you might be able to isolate rounded characters like 0,2,3,5,6 and 8 from narrow figures like 1 or 7. I would be absolutely amazed if anything from this camera yields a real number.

  • The speed cameras that CDOT will be installing this year will be recording video 24/7. That was part of the mayor’s ordinance. Several aldermen objected to that section of the ordinance but it remained.

  • James, Transport Providence

    I would tend to disagree in this case. I’m fairly against having cameras everywhere for the purpose of surveillance when it comes to most types of crime, but when it comes to traffic violations, I don’t think anyone should have an expectation of privacy. Driving is a public act that happens entirely in public spaces, and having a license at all is a privilege. You should assume you’re being watched if you drive. That’s how it should be.

    By the same token, I don’t know how much I really support incarceration for DUI cases, but I think the impoundment of cars and revocation of licenses to drive should be swifter, more severe, and more long-term. To me, it’s a balance between not wanting to have a prison-oriented justice system, but also feeling like the enforcement around traffic law is too lax.

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