Saturday, November 27, 2010

I fought the law and the law won . . . My day in traffic court

I've always prided myself on being a safe driver and maintaining a clean record. So, when I got my first traffic ticket in about seventeen years on September 21, 2010, I decided to go to court and fight it.

Thing is, though, I was innocent of at least some of the charges and was confident I could prove it court.

Here's what happened. I left for work at 5:05 in the morning and got out on the main road heading southbound. When I crossed at Howard Litzler, I went from the left lane to the right lane without signaling. There was NO one on the road: no cars, no pedestrians, no bicycles. I began climbing the hill, checking my speed as I went: 45mph. At the top of the hill I saw headlights fast approaching. I turned onto the interstate and went west at 65mph. A minute later, there were red flashing lights behind me, and I was pulled over.

The officer told me he had been at McDonalds when he saw my lane change (McD's was about five blocks behind Howard Litzler) and started following me, when he saw me suddenly accelerate up the hill going at least "70 to 80mph" when he pulled up behind me. And in order to do so, he had to go over 90 to catch up. Needless to say I was surprised by this, but I didn't argue or agree. I just acted low key enough to be forgettable, and he wrote me citations for the lane change and "careless driving" and sent me on my way.

The whole encounter made me 20 minutes late to work and very irritated all day long.

Since I was guilty of the lane change, and since the rest of the charges were fictionalized for reasons I didn't understand, I decided to go to court. I was being accused of something I hadn't done. I wasn't paying a fine and admitting guilt when I was innocent.

A week later, I learned my fine was $174. Not a fortune, but still, a fine for something I didn't do. There was a principle at stake here.

If I had been guilty, then yeah, I would have grumbled and paid the fine. There would have been no reason to go to court.

In 1993 I bought a book called Traffic Ticket Defense, written by a lawyer who specialized in traffic cases. While I didn't need it at the time, I read it so I could be prepared in case the time ever came up when I needed to go to traffic court. It explained how court worked, defenses, cross-examining, and mostly how it was possible to win a case by representing yourself in court.

I re-read the book cover to cover and began to plan my approach.

First I had to go to arraignment and plead not guilty, which was scheduled about a month later. That morning I left work and went to court. When it was my turn, I stood before the judge and told him I was pleading not guilty. He asked the prosecutor if my fine could be lowered. He offered to reduce it by $20. I stuck to my plan and said I still wanted to plead not-guilty, so he set the trial date for November 22.

I never knew that if you went to arraignment, there was a chance to get your fine lowered. This is helpful knowledge for anyone who's received a speeding ticket and doesn't mind going to arraignment court instead of mailing in the payment. Arraignment is shockingly easy. Your name is called, the judge says what you're charged with, the prosecutor makes an offer on a reduced fine. If you accept it, you plead guilty and pay that new fine.

But I knew I wasn't guilty, so I went on with my plan.

In the weeks that followed, I prepared for my case by researching the specific laws I was charged with (lane change and careless driving), read almost every article online about fighting tickets in court, and checked out a book from the library called "Beat Your Ticket" which was a more precise guide on how to prepare for court, how to cross-examine, court procedures, and a whole lot more. Overall it was a nice complement to Traffic Ticket Defense. Both books supplied the information I needed to prepare for court.

I had never gone to court before. My only exposure to court was from the 80s TV Show Night Court. I don't watch modern law dramas--I just don't like them. So, this was all new territory for me. But when I make a plan, I always carry it through to the end. My drivers' record was at stake, as well as $174.

I knew from the start that the odds were against me. I knew that in court, the judge usually sided with the officer and the defendant was almost always found guilty. I figured this was because the average person going into court had no plan. He would simply tell his story and hope the judge took his side. But no, I had a Plan. I would make appropriate objections during the officer's testimony. I would cross-examine the officer. I would provide photographic evidence. I would nitpick the laws themselves to prove my innocence. In short, I would go beyond the "average" angry motorist fighting his ticket with my calm, cool-headed approach.

I planned my defense carefully. I took photographs along the route to prove that the officer could not see me where he said he saw me (his position at McD's). There's a bend in the road which makes visibility impossible. I drew a big map of the road to show my position and his position. I went through the laws themselves and explained why I wasn't guilty of them.

Lane change: the law says you must use a turn signal when changing lanes, and that your changing cannot affect other traffic or pedestrians. I would argue that since there was no other traffic on the road, nobody was affected by my lane change, I wasn't guilty of every aspect of that law.

Careless driving: The law states that the driver must operate the vehicle in a careful manner that cannot affect other vehicles or pedestrians on the road, nor can the driving injure the road. I would argue that no other cars were on the road, there were no bicycles, no pedestrians, so therefore, my driving didn't affect anything on the road, nor did it injure the road itself.

As the court day drew closer, I continued to study the two books, memorizing the facts and procedures and committing court procedures to memory. I wrote everything out: my testimony, a long list of cross-examination questions from which I would choose the most appropriate, the objections and when to use, them, and my closing remarks which summed the reasons I was not guilty. I rehearsed out loud all these things so they would flow and not confused and jumbled. Since I have public speaking experience, I have the ability to read out loud and not sound like I'm reading. I am comfortable speaking in front of groups, so in reality, this wouldn't be too much different from past experience.

But I was still nervous. All I could do was be as prepared as possible.

The day finally came. I took off from work to do this, which meant missing out on a day's pay. I dressed in my best clothes, my "job interview" outfit consisting of dress clothes, tie, and jacket, went to the courthouse with my briefcase and carrying my big map, found my courtroom, and sat down and waited.

I was amazed at how busy the courtroom was that day. There were all these lawyers bustling about, and benches full of more people with tattoos than I have ever seen assembled in one location. There were a lot of police there, too. I couldn't locate the one who pulled me over--I couldn't remember what he looked like because I never got a clear look at him. And part of me hoped he wouldn't even be there. No officer almost always means no trial, case dismissed.

I waited for about an hour while other pre-trials and arraignments took place. Finally they called my name.

I stepped to the podium, the judge told me why I was there, and said this was a pre-trial and asked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted a trial, and he said, instead of a trial, they would offer eight hours of community service, working at a local animal shelter. In exchange, the charges would be dropped and no points would be put on my record. In this case, it was six points. I said, no, I was fully prepared and would go to trial. He said, all right, since the officer was present, we could do it right away. He located the officer and asked if he was prepared, and he said yes.

I turned around and located the officer. There he was! The subject of my nightmares, the thorn in my side, my Accuser. It was a young guy, looked no older than 22 or 23. Certainly not the menacing ogre I had built up inside my mind.

The judge called a recess and said we'd begin then.

I sat back down and the bailiff came over and pulled me outside. He suggested I take the plea deal because eight hours of community service was a decent offer, and he didn't know if I could win or not. He told me to think about it and let the judge know if I had changed my mind.

I did think about it and decided to go ahead with the trial. (In retrospect, I should have taken this plea deal. More on that later.)

After the recess, my trial began.

This was my moment. This was what I had been planning and fantasizing about for weeks. But this was no longer fantasy. This was reality. And I had better have my shit together.

I took my seat at the defendant's table. Beside me, the prosecutor and officer sat at their table.

With lawyers watching, police officers watching, and a courtroom full of people I didn't know watching, the trial began.

The officer told his testimony by answering questions from the prosecutor. I tried to take notes, but he was talking so fast I couldn't write anything down. But I did object: "Objection, your honor, he's reading from his notes." This strategy was designed to make him put his notes away and/or share them with me. Through "discovery," the defendant is allowed to see what evidence there is against him. The judge asked the officer if it was his notes and the prosecutor said no, it was the citation, which was perfectly allowable in the courtroom.

In other words, He had no notes. Apparently, he wrote nothing down following the traffic incident, which was both a good thing and bad thing, which you'll see why soon.

He continued. His testimony was vastly different than mine. He explained that he was positioned at Howard Litzler and saw me blow past him going 70-80mph up the hill. He followed me at going at least 90 and saw me do the lane change at the top of the hill before pulling onto the interstate, where apparently I went 80 until he finally pulled me over.

WHAT??? In what reality did THIS take place?

Now, you're not allowed to argue with the accuser during court, so when he was finished, the judge said I could ask questions.

Oh, I started in on my questions. I asked question after question, facing him as I did so, watching his reactions as they progressed:

How long were you on your shift when this took place? 10 hours.
How long have you been a police officer? The prosecutor objected to this, but the judge overruled. Answer: two years.
In the academy, did you take any tests to judge a car's speed? No.
In the academy, were you trained to uphold all aspects of the traffic code? Yes.
Where were you exactly when the first incident took place?
Where was my location?
Did you use radar? No
Did you use a speedometer? Yes, when he was driving after me.
Has the speedometer been calibrated? Don't know.
How much traffic was on the road? None.
Pedestrians? None.
Bicycles? None.
Was I weaving? No.
Did my driving injure the road? No.
How do you define careless driving?

And this went on and on. Since my defense was built around the fact that he told me previously he was at McDonald's when he first saw me, and since now the story was different, my strategy had to change on the fly. I was trying to poke holes in his testimony. I was trying to trip him up. I was trying to get him to change his facts so the judge would catch it and hopefully dismiss the case.

I almost succeeded--twice. One of my questions was: "What is the difference between speeding and careless driving?" The prosecutor objected to this, but the judge overruled, and I had to explain my question. The officer testified I had been speeding, but my citation was for careless driving. The judge told him to answer the question or he was going to dismiss the case right then. (I was silently cheering at this point.) The officer explained it, somehow, and the case went on.

Another time I pointed out that the citation said the incident (lane change) took place at Howard Litzler, but the officer testified that the lane change took place at the top of the hill. Why was there a discrepancy? The officer said he made a mistake when he wrote it down, that he was at Howard Litzler when he observed it. Or words to that effect.

I still wasn't buying it, but by this point I was running out of steam. I knew from the way things were going that it didn't look like I was going to win. When my cross examining ended, the prosecutor asked a couple of questions, then I tried entering my evidence: my big map, my photographs, and they allowed it, but it was all moot because the officer testified he wasn't in the locations represented by my maps or photos. And now my mouth had gone completely dry. I was having trouble getting some of my words out because it felt I had cotton packed in my mouth.

I gave my closing remarks that summed up my position and why I wasn't guilty of the laws he accused me of breaking.

Then the judge spoke. He said that you must use your turn signal no matter what: weather conditions, lack of other vehicles, etc. As for the careless driving, to be honest, I didn't understand all of what he said, something about speeding versus not intending to speed, but I was so numb I couldn't take it all in. Final judgement, guilty on all charges, $174 fine.

In the end, he sided with the officer, I guess ignoring every point I brought up in cross-examination and testimony.

The whole thing took about 25 minutes or so.

I can't say it was "fun," but I did take satisfaction in watching the officer get rattled during my cross-examination as he answered or struggled to answer my questions. I also felt the same satisfaction when the prosecutor objected (I knew I was getting to her), and especially when the judge overruled her. Ha! Take THAT lady prosecutor!

When I was pulled over on the side of the road, the police officer was in charge. One wrong step and he could have arrested me. In the courtroom during cross-examination, I was in charge. He HAD to answer my questions, to explain his actions, and to face ME this time. This was quite a feeling, I have to admit.

When it was over, I left the courtroom with as much dignity as I could muster. A few other people, including other police officers, left with me. After we left, one police officer--a police officer mind you--told me I did great in there. He said my biggest mistake was admitting to the lane change, but I was sure it would come out anyway, so it didn't matter. He said the average person probably would have just yelled profanities at the judge. In the elevator going down, another man told me it took a lot of guts to do what I did.

The biggest unexpected problem I faced was the officer's change in testimony. I think this is attributable to one of two things:

He lied. Possible. Perhaps he knew he had no case so he changed the report of the events, confident that I would lose.

He totally forgot what happened. Just giving him the benefit of the doubt, this is what I think is more likely that happened. As he was testifying, he was looking at the citation. NOT NOTES. He said he had no notes. I believe he was using the citation to reconstruct what happened, but forgot other details including where he actually was when he observed the lane change. Once he had developed his new, reconstructed story, he stuck by it until the end, never mind the discrepancies.

I only realized this later. If I had realized it during court, I may have changed my line of questioning to reflect on his reconstructed story which would have poked further holes into it. Maybe I could have gotten the careless driving accusation thrown out, which was one of my intentions.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out in my favor. But I tried! I tried my ass off. I played lawyer for one day and gambled with me driving record. And lost. Now my insurance rates will rise and I will have six points on my record for the next five years.

It was an expensive point to prove: that I was not guilty for what I was accused for.

I believe now that while I lost the case, this is a victory for the common person against the police at large. In other words, my day in court showed the judge, the lawyers, the police officers, and the people watching, that not every driver accused with bogus charges by the police will just lay down and pay the fine. Some of will fight back. And the police need to realize this.

Perhaps next time one of those police officers will think twice before issuing tickets indiscriminately just to fill their quotas.

Because if it goes to court, they could end up looking like an asshole to everyone in that courtroom, including their own peers. And I may have succeeded in doing just that.

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3 Comments:

At Saturday, November 27, 2010 10:37:00 AM, Anonymous Tina said...

Good for you Allen, good for you.

 
At Wednesday, December 08, 2010 12:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, friend, I got a kick out of reading your inspiring account of defending yourself pro per, it is beautiful.

I am in the process of fighting my own traffic ticket via trial by written declaration, I am not sure if you have this option in your state, but if you do, next time, opt for trial by written declaration instead since cops get fat overtime pay for showing up in court, your chances are better with trial by written declaration.

By the way, next time the police pulls you over or wants to initiate a "friendly" chat with you, (or the IRS, SEC, FBI, homeland security for that matter) the first thing and only thing out of your mouth should be: "I want my lawyer. I have nothing to say." Do not be intimidated.

Though you did not win, being able to confront your accuser must be exhilarating. Congratulations.

 
At Friday, August 08, 2014 2:59:00 PM, Blogger Norma Richards said...

You did the right thing. It’s not really favorable to just submit yourself to the court and take everything that they throw in you. If you know you’re innocent, you better fight for it. At least, you know your stand and are able to contest it. Congrats on your day in court, and good day!

Norma Richards @ Just Bail Bonds

 

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