The Traffic Accident Reconstruction Origin -Article-

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Private Practice, Law Enforcement and Traffic Accident Reconstruction, Two perspectives.

by: Wade Bartlett and Bill Wright

This article will attempt to examine the differences, similarities, benefits and drawbacks of the two most popular ways people practice Traffic Accident Reconstruction. First a little about the authors:

Income, Benefits and the Cost of Doing Business

Law Enforcement

My experience of working at three different agencies brings home the broad differences within Law Enforcement pay scales. During the past twenty years salaries have ranged from $15K (in small rural town 1976 dollars) to $50K annually. This latter salary reflects the pay scale at the Palm Beach Count Sheriffs Office after nine years of regular raises and one additional step for the rank of investigator. Without cost of living adjustments, if I continue to be evaluated "better than average", I will top out in five more years at just over 60K . In theory, one could start at the bottom of the scale, and top out at this rate in 18 years.

Benefit packages vary widely but a good insurance package with affordable family coverage and dental are the norm. My employer pays 100% of my retirement. The Palm Beach County Sheriff's office gives assigned take home cars that can be used, with obvious exceptions, off duty. There is also a tuition reimbursement program offering up to $1000 per year on college grades that are passing or better. Local Law Enforcement training is free. It is also not unusual for an out of town, funded trip (time, tuition and per diem) every other year or so. Vacation is accrued at a rate of two weeks per year for the first five years, then it's three weeks. Overtime can be taken as paid or as comp-time. Though holidays are part of the work day rotation they are paid at double time. The rank of Investigator comes with a desk, a phone, 1/8th of a secretary, and a 24-hour answering service (remember law enforcement never sleeps).

Private Practice

Salary wise, it's hard to make generalizations, but in talking to other self-employed folks, I've heard values of between 10K and 100K first year out, depending on the person, their venue, and their list of contacts. The higher ones in the crowd, though, have generally been engineers, not straight accident reconstructionists. Even so, that range sounds pretty good.

But one must consider that a self-employed person sends 30% of their earnings to Uncle Sam. Ouch. Health benefits run $2K to 5K per year. Dental coverage is usually way too expensive to justify it. No retirement fund. No IRA. No 401. No company car, or office, or phone, or secretary. No paid vacations. If I take a day off, I don't get paid. But I can take any day off that I like. This is a privilege that is too easy to abuse.

Many of the little things that are included in "overhead" at large companies or government agencies are time consuming and almost unseen until you have to do it yourself. A few examples of such things are: buying office supplies, deciding how many binders you need (the good large ones are $10 to $12 each!), putting labels on folders, making sure the phone message is right, copying reports for your file, keeping the library organized, arranging travel plans, making sure the job-list is up to date, keeping your CV and testimony history complete and accurate, arranging advertisements and mailings, and getting court boards and displays done. It's hard to charge your full technical fee for time spent on secretarial duties. If you decide to hire someone, your little business gets complicated fast: The IRS is much more interested in employers than in lone operators, and has many more regulations to follow. And OSHA steps into the picture, insurance gets more complicated and expensive, and you have to decide on employee policies (like sick leave & vacations). All this is accompanied by more bookkeeping.

And then there's the money. Deciding what your fee will be is simple compared to determining your terms and conditions. You need to hire an attorney to review everything for completeness and accuracy. You have to keep track of not only your hours on each job, but also all of the expenses associated with each job (film developing, mileage, equipment fees, etc..) because if you forget to bill them, it comes out of your pocket. And you have to arrange for invoicing, either by yourself (late at night), or by someone who understands your business pretty well. Such a person may take a while to cultivate, which means holding their hand while they learn your procedures.

If you do it yourself, I strongly recommend computerizing the whole mess right from the start. It may take many many hours to get it right at first, but once it's functional, you can review where your money came from and went in a myriad of ways which are tedious or impossible using traditional paper ledgers.

Prepare yourself to send a check to the IRS each quarter (and your state revenue collector as well in most states). And don't be late with a payment, or they will fine you. If you decide to incorporate your little business things change, some for better, some for worse. See your attorney again.

If you are successful, you may make more money than at an established position, but every year is new uncertainty. If your big client finds someone closer to home, or hires their own in-house team, you could be scrambling for work. If you try to testify on issues outside your area of expertise, and get disqualified over it, your future as a credible witness is in jeopardy, and clients will know this. In short, even if you are careful about how you conduct yourself, job security is not great.

Conducting an Investigation

Law Enforcement

The charge an expert criminal accident investigator is given is to find facts that lead him to a conclusion about the events that surround a collision. The investigation usually starts right there, right then, with bent cars and injured occupants receiving treatment. The conclusions drawn from this investigation are ultimately measured against criminal law. If the facts support a violation of law someone is charged.

The power of the state is truly awesome. Need the road closed to measure a scene? Sufficient help is at the end of a coiled microphone cord. Questions about manner and mechanism of death can be answered at the autopsy the following day. You are there. The pathologist is there. His samples are forwarded to the crime lab for toxicological analysis. The victim's blood alcohol and drug screen will be available in the morning. DNA? The lab does that too. If the suspect did not die, the prosecutor's office stand s ready to cut a subpoena for the hospital records to document the tox screen run at the hospital. Need to know injury patterns? It is just another sentence in the subpoena to have the entire hospital record. Vehicle maintenance records are also but a subpoena away. Do we think there is evidence that being hidden? A search warrant, with sworn probable cause, authorizes the forced entry and seizure of the property. Need legal advice on the warrant or case law? The prosecutor is just a phone call away. Supporting experts to perform micro, macro and spectral paint examinations are available. There are also personnel to perform fracture pattern matches. The infrastructure to access state vehicle registration files, including weight, is at your fingertips.

Testifying becomes common place. After several years of court, depositions, and organizing cases, one becomes used to this task and should be an effective communicator.

The downside for law enforcement investigators is that we are never on the cutting edge. New software or hardware will have to wait for next year's budget, and then will have to be justified to a bean counter that generally doesn't understand the need. As a result we are still pulling steel tapes and using a 10-year-old CAD package. Non budgeted items of any size (read money) are nearly unobtainable.

Private Practice

Conducting investigations in private practice generally has a different goal than when conducted for law enforcement purposes, as far as I can tell. Instead of a general investigation, with access to all the witnesses, time to interview them, and the opportunity to research an involved person's history, activities, etc., the private practitioner is given a particular question to answer, and sometimes a very limited budget. Though the peripheral research may yield something useful, it will probably be hard to justify spending your client's money on it, unless you have good reason to expect it to pan out. Things like toxicology, pathology, and laboratory services are almost certainly unavailable, partly because cases are often too old by the time you get them for any evidence to remain, but also because you generally don't have authority to request such investigations, and can't justify the cost of such tests. If you are in a position to utilize them, laboratory work can be hired out, but issues remain which must be dealt with. The list of things to consider before sending out work includes the lab's ability to maintain adequate chain of custody records, their evidence preservation, lab certification, technician qualifications, and the specter of calling the technician to testify about their findings. These are things I wouldn't expect to cause worry with a dedicated law-enforcement lab.

As a "hired gun," you are viewed askance in any instance where your opinion is beneficial to your client. Expect all of your conclusions to be examined under a microscope, in front of 12 bored jurors for solid basis. I would hope that all investigations (private or otherwise) were based on similarly solid foundations, but have seen otherwise on a few occasions.

I haven't ever thought about issuing someone a subpoena. It just wasn't a tool in my toolbox, so it never occurred to me. If I had to demand someone show up to talk to me though, I wouldn't be too confident that what they told me was accurate. If I have to base a conclusion on someone's statement, when it cannot be backed up by physical evidence or engineering analysis, I have to let my client know that. Courts seem disposed to accept someone's testimony as valid for analytical basis, but opposing counsel can cut you to ribbons if you do. "So if Mr. Smith is mistaken about the distance his vehicle slid, your analysis is incorrect? YES. Thank you, no more questions."

As with subpoenas, serving warrants or doing things which would require police protection are not things I think I do. I never desired such services, but they were never available, either, so I don't know if I'd have done something differently had they been available.

Any records from the state are harder to get as a civilian than I think they are for a LE officer. Members of the law enforcement community get more respect than independent operators Some records are almost impossible to access, for privacy reasons. Even police reports can be hard to get. Oftentimes, state and government departments are not very interested in providing copies of photos taken of the scene. They have better things to do. If you are investigating an old case, simply finding out who has custody of the records can be a day's work.

Scene documentations require planning around high-traffic times and playing in traffic, or spending real dollars to hire several officers and a couple cruisers from that jurisdiction to close the road. Clients don't cough up this much money very often (I 've seen this happen on less than 1% of my cases.) Often this sort of thing happens at odd hours, like 4 o'clock Sunday morning. An able assistant can speed the scene or vehicle documentation process, but it takes time (and money) to get an assistant up to speed so that they are more help than hindrance. Having trained assistants is a benefit which should not be taken lightly.

The Final Analysis

Law Enforcement

Law Enforcement is government. And though there are many moves afoot to streamline government and make it more efficient it is still generally not a place for extremes. Good pay for good work, and sometimes it's just good enough for government work. Good work or bad, good economy or bad, busy or slow, the paychecks will continue to come. Given the correct supervision, the job can be very rewarding. With the wrong supervision it can be a frustrating nightmare. I recognize that I am very fortunate to work for the people that are my supervisors. I have not always been so fortunate. Imagine trying to explain to some misplaced bureaucrat why five people need two hours of overtime to close a road and skid a police car. "You want to do what?" Visualize a dumb uniformed, uninformed look.

Then there is the Po-lice part of the job. Regardless of how specialized the law enforcement reconstructionist becomes, he still carries a badge, a weapon and is sworn to uphold the law. Responding to an occasional bar fight or building search must be in the repertoire somewhere. This law enforcement type would not trade these types of experiences for a large amount of money.

There is also a public service aspect to the job. Law Enforcement has been described as the thin blue line between social order and disorder. The twenty years of experiences cited above has somewhat colored my view of this metaphor. Nonetheless I still see a grain of truth here.

I remember well. Shortly after my second accident investigation school, I had visions of fame and riches as a private practice expert. Ten years of the working world has brought this vision into some question. I'm not sure if I want to be that rich or that famous.

Private Practice

Working alone makes it harder to find a qualified peer with whom to discuss a case, or bounce an idea off of. Most of the people who are qualified may well be adversaries on any given case, so you have to be careful about whom you talk with. And even when you can talk to someone, their time is not free, either, and your client may not be pleased about a peer-review (no matter how good an idea is seemed to be at the time). The benefit of having people you trust and can confide in just down the hall is often not missed until it is gone.

On the up side, you are the boss. You decide how your money is spent and what cases you accept or decline. You control your life in many ways that are not possible when you have to report to someone else. You get to use not only investigative skills, but you find outlets for expression of other talents as well: financial planning, artistic (business cards and letter head), marketing, office decor, organizational, etc.. Variety can be the spice of life. That variety and the empowerment of being where the buck stops wins out over the other drawbacks for many of us. If it doesn't, we accept positions at someone else's company soon, because there are few other bonuses in private practice.

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