By Anna Griffin, The Oregonian
Published: Saturday, September 11, 2010, 5:51 PM
At first glance, Kirk Hanna’s recent run-in with the law looks like a clear case of rich-guy justice.
In court last month, the owner of Mt. Hood Skibowl admitted to driving drunk, hitting a bicyclist and then fleeing. For his crime, he’ll spend 30 days in jail, two years on probation and pay a $1,000 fine.
Bloggers and bicyclists, a few of whom want a boycott of Skibowl, say that’s far too lenient. Hanna, they note, is lucky he didn’t kill someone and could have faced more than five years behind bars.
They’re right to be angry: A quick scan of court records shows that Hanna has received at least a half-dozen speeding tickets since 1987, the year he bought Skibowl out of bankruptcy. He’s also been accused of drunken driving before — a 2003 DUII charge was dismissed when a witness showed up late for court, and two lesser charges in that incident were dismissed when Hanna reached a civil compromise with someone whose property he hit.
And yet if you look closer, this is less a case of a wealthy guy buying his way out of trouble and more an example of how complicated and consternating our legal system can be. It doesn’t matter what prosecutors and police know in their heart of hearts, just what they can prove in a court of law. Without Hanna’s assistance — however self-serving it might have been — they couldn’t prove anything.
“I think we got more than we could have if we’d gone to trial,” said Portland police Sgt. Todd Davis. “And I’m not even sure we could have gone to trial.”
On the morning of Tuesday, May 25, a lawyer showed up at the Portland Police Traffic Division bearing keys to an SUV. The attorney would not say whom she represented, but she told investigators where they could find a vehicle that had been involved in an accident.
Officers took one look at the Porsche Cayenne and knew: The vehicle had hit a bike, hard. The passenger-side mirror was gone, the windshield cracked and the hood dented. They got a search warrant, ran the license plate and discovered that the SUV belonged to Hanna, a real-estate developer, Skibowl owner and son of longtime Oregon car wash king Daniel Hanna.
Unsolved hit-and-runs are all too common in Portland. On a typical Monday morning, police go through about 100 reports from the weekend. They usually toss about half for lack of witnesses or obvious suspects.
Traffic officers had no reports that week matching the damage to the Cayenne. They called other agencies, looking for unsolved, potentially fatal, incidents but found nothing. Finally, figuring that police records often take a few days to process, they went through radio calls from the weekend and found one that seemed to match: Witnesses called 9-1-1 just after 2:30 a.m. May 23, a rainy Sunday, to report that a dark-colored vehicle had been weaving through traffic and struck a bicyclist on Southwest Macadam Avenue.
The victim, Robert Skof, 45, suffered bruises, cuts, a slight concussion and fractured bridgework in his mouth. Witnesses, including two Milwaukie teens headed home from the prom, all agreed that the driver who hit Skof had been going too fast and sped up even more after striking the bike.
But nobody got a good look at the person behind the wheel, or even the car itself. One prom-goer told police she thought the vehicle that hit Skof was an Audi station wagon.
At that point, with a few fuzzy facts, the lawyers closed the door and began an ethically tricky dance of discovery.
Prosecutors knew who owned the car, but not who was driving it. Hanna’s lawyers — by the end, he had three — had handed over the Cayenne but didn’t know whether police had reliable witnesses. (At first, they didn’t even know the victim’s name. The first thing Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Jim Hayden did when he got the case was to ask a judge to seal the police report). Both sides were fishing for information.
In a black-and-white world, Hanna could and probably should have been charged with a felony — perhaps even second-degree assault, which Oregon statutes define as “recklessly causing serious physical injury to another by means of a deadly or dangerous weapon under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.” That’s a Measure 11 crime, meaning it could carry a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 70 months.
In our Technicolor reality, however, prosecutors were unlikely to win a trial on second-degree assault charge – let alone get an indictment. For one thing, whether Skof’s injuries amounted to “serious” is debatable. For another, Hanna was unwilling to admit he was driving if he faced a felony. And without that admission, prosecutors had no case.
Hanna’s lead lawyer, John Henry Hingson III, declined an interview request, and Hayden, the prosecutor, wouldn’t talk about his private negotiations with defense attorneys. But you don’t need a law degree or an inside source to figure out why Hanna wanted to ensure that he faced only a misdemeanor: In addition to spending more time locked up, convicted felons cannot own firearms or explosives, the stuff ski resorts rely on to control avalanches.
So they compromised. Late last month, Hanna pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors: failing to perform his duties as a driver, driving under the influence of intoxicants and fourth-degree assault, a count that will disappear from his record if, as seems likely, his lawyers work out a civil settlement with Skof, whose lawyer did not return phone calls.
At the end of the day, did Hanna get a better deal because he had the money to hire savvy attorneys? Of course.
Was taking the keys to the cops a self-serving attempt to find out what they knew? Sure.
Is some justice better than none? Definitely.
Here’s the most important question: Will Kirk Hanna ever drink and drive again? Not if he has a shred of decency or common sense.
Next time he’ll probably still be well-off, but he might not be so lucky.