LA County sheriff's deputy who caused fatal crash still holds valid driver's license

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011, an SUV remains in the store after crashing through the wall of a Starbucks in Fillmore, Calif., killing a 30-year-old-man.
In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011, an SUV remains in the store after crashing through the wall of a Starbucks in Fillmore, Calif., killing a 30-year-old-man.
Johnny Corona/AP

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Last December, an off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy blacked out while driving in Ventura County. His SUV plowed into a Starbucks and killed a former Marine who had served in Iraq.

KPCC has learned that the California Department of Motor Vehicles has allowed the sheriff’s deputy to keep his driver’s license in apparent violation of DMV policy, even after it had suspended the deputy’s license once before because of a seizure.

This story began last May when L.A. County sheriff’s deputy Michael Cedarland had a seizure while working at the Pitchess Detention Center in Valencia. Coworkers said he was “walking around in a catatonic state.”

That episode caused the DMV to suspend Cedarland’s license last July, according to records obtained by KPCC. But a family practice doctor cleared him to drive again.

Based based on that doctor’s report, the DMV restored Cedarland’s license last November. That's according to the Ventura County Sheriff's Department accident report.

Six weeks later, Cedarland lost consciousness again, this time while driving his Chevy Tahoe on State Route 126 through the town of Fillmore.

It was about 7 p.m. on Dec. 13, 2011. Witnesses saw Cedarland’s SUV drift across two lanes of oncoming traffic, according to a Ventura County Sheriff's Department accident report. The vehicle then jumped a sidewalk and careened through a shopping center parking lot at an estimated 45 mph before crashing through a side wall of the Ventura Street Starbucks.

The SUV continued through the coffee shop, injuring two customers and pinning 30-year-old Sergio Mendez against the front door. Mendez, a California National Guardsman and former Marine who served in Iraq, died several hours later from internal injuries. He left behind a wife of seven years.

A Ventura County Sheriff's sergeant told KPCC that toxicology tests showed no illegal drugs or alcohol in Cedarland’s system.

State law requires local health officials to inform the DMV when anyone 14 or older loses consciousness. Citing confidentiality laws, DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez refused to answer medical questions about Cedarland’s case. She did say that in a case such as Cedarland’s, the DMV would be likely to "immediately" suspend a driver’s license "for an indefinite term." Yet Gonzalez told KPCC the agency has not suspended Cedarland’s license since the fatal accident.

Sergio Mendez’s family is questioning why the DMV has allowed Cedarland to keep his driver's license — especially with knowledge of his seizure history. Juan Camilo Mendez, 27, spoke with KPCC in a phone interview from his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

"Something so absurd and so tragic that happened to my brother, that he got killed by just being inside a Starbucks, this could still happen to someone," said Juan Mendez, "because as far as we know, he still has his license."

What’s more, the DMV failed to suspend Cedarland's license even after he suffered yet another seizure less than three weeks after the Starbucks accident.

That one happened at his home on Jan. 3, 2012. Paramedics said Cedarland, who just turned 31, suffered a grand mal seizure. They transported him to Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, where an emergency room doctor diagnosed him with epilepsy.

A spokesman for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department last week confirmed that Cedarland remains on duty, but said the seven-year sheriff’s veteran does not drive a county vehicle as part of his duties.

The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department said it will submit the case to the district attorney for consideration of criminal charges against Cedarland relating to the Starbucks crash.

You can read the full police report here:

Full Cedarland police report