My Cousin Ronnie (Traffic Court)
Back in November out on a little mid week recovery ride I come up to an intersection that I have been through on my bike well over 100 times. It's a particular signalized intersection that is notorious for not detecting bicycles. I know this not only from experience, but also from the design stand point since my company provided the design services for this signal to City of Pleasanton.
The type of detector loops that the city used at that time are not the type that are typically sensitive enough for bicycles to activate.
Naturally, I waited until the intersection was clear and proceeded through the red light with caution.
Enter officer Knowit Awl, who happened to be approaching the intersection several hundred feet behind me as I rolled through. I was 200' beyond the intersection and safely off on my merry way when I hear "you on the bike, stop I want to talk to you" from a loud speaker.
I looked back and saw a black and white stopped at the far side of the intersection. My first thought was to punch it and ditch him through the housing neighborhood, but I was wearing my team kit, and after all it was a recovery day. So I waited for him to arrive and we began a nice chat about bicycle safety.
Officer Knowit Awl felt it pertinent to explain to me from the depth of an unfit belly and Sempre Fi hair cut, the reason he pulled me over. Like I couldn't have figured this out on my own.
After listening to his rant about red lights and bicycle accidents (all of which involved pedestrians on toy bicycles, not actual cyclists), I proceeded to explain my position and the reason for my action. I also proceeded to provide him with the some basics of traffic signal design, operation, and the subtleties of vehicle detection devices.
Note: This is the same officer that at an earlier date and unrelated incident I had to educate on the subtleties of pack riding and why a group of over 40 cyclist might be inclined to not ride single file in a bike lane that is full of glass and construction debris. Another topic covered previously was the stopping distance required for a tandem bike verses and single bike. Officer Knowit Awl was absent the day his physics class covered the topic of The Behavior of Momentum and Mass in Motion and thought it was a good idea to stand directly in front of my wife and I short of the distance we needed to stop without crashing. A CHP friend suggested that we should have just ran into him, but that may have caused severe injury to my wife.
Officer Knowit Awl in a show of appreciation for the service I was attempting to provide rewarded my well delivered lecture on the design and function of traffic signals with a yellow piece of paper and a copy of my autograph. He also informed me that the stop was being audio recorded. Which I responded "good, because I want a copy". You see, Officer Knowit Awl doesn't hear so well and his responses tend to be off topic and not exactly in line with the linear progression of the conversation.
This is where is gets fun:
Following some advice of a long time racer and CHP officer that I know, I filed a Trial by Declaration. I also attempted several times, unsuccessfully, to get my hands on the audio tape of the stop. I was so ready that I had my declaration, complete with 5 x 7 color glossy photographs, pages copied from the Caltrans 2006 Standard Plans, a copy of the City approved traffic signal design for the intersection, and a copy of a City of Dublin traffic signal design illustrating bike loops prepared before the courtesy notice even arrived.
I sent in my Declaration and all items mentioned above, and received a brief letter 30 days later stating "Guilty" with no supporting documentation or explanation.
Now you might be thinking that it's over, but Trial by Declaration does not remove your right to go in front of a judge. So I sent in my request for a Trial De Novo. A court date was granted, and yesterday was that day.
Armed with a little more advice from above mentioned bike racing CHP officer, I went to my court date. What was the advice, you ask? "When the officer starts reading from his green document of the facts of the incident, call out "Objection! The officer is reading from a document that I have not had the chance to examine. I move for a continuance"". You see, as it turns out, that little green piece paper is considered "evidence". Evidence that the defendant has not had the opportunity to examine and do proper discovery on.
Locked, cocked and ready to rock, I had practice yelling "objection" in the mirror. Even visualized myself doing it in court. I went to court early to get a feel for the arena in which I was about to take on this behemoth and watched a few cases and got a good sense of timing for my display. You don't want to yell out "objection" too early, that would be bad.
My case was called and I bit down hard on my tongue waiting for the right moment, I think I even mumbled it a few times but was able to play it off. The moment came, the officer start presenting photos, photo I had not seen. I moved up close to the microphone and in my best Perry Mason meets Cousin Vinny exclaimed "OBJECTION!!!!" "I have never seen these photos before and have not had a chance to examine the photos or the documents the officer is reading from!". My heart pounded, it was beating so hard that I think the whole court room could see my body tremor from each beat. There was a long pause of silence in the court room, I glanced at the officer, his face in shock as he tried to take in the curve ball I had just launched.
The judge awoke from his droning and now had to deal with something unexpected, he had to think for a change.
The judge ordered the bailiff to collect the photos and hand them too me. After some discussion the judge ordered the officer to make copies for me and started to actually look at the case.
He asked "what are all these other photos and documents in this file?". I explained that those were mine and I had provided them when I filed a Trial by Declaration. "Can he do that?", the judge asked completely bewildered and searching the court room for someone who knew what was going on. The officer begrudgingly answered "yes, in traffic court defendants can file a Trial by Declaration". The judge then asked looking at Officer Knowit Awl "what are these other documents, are these your responses and statements to the Declaration?" "Yes they are", the officer answered. Having recovered from my first burst into the court I screamed "OBJECTION!!!" once again and explained that I had no knowledge that those responses existed and had not been provided an opportunity to examine them.
The judge even more bewildered asked the clerk "can he look at these or are they confidential?", the clerk informed the judge that I had the right to copies, but normal procedure is to just send a letter stating "guilty" or "not guilty".
The judge approved my continuance based on all that had happened.
I then informed the judge that I wanted a copy of the audio recording from the traffic stop. "There is an audio recording?" the judge questioned the officer. The officer explained to the judge that Pleasanton PD audio record all of there traffic stops in case of complaints on the officer. I quickly brought to the judges attention that I had requested a copy and was not provided a mechanism in which to attain this evidence. The judge then asked, the now red with frustration, officer if he could provide a copy. The officer promptly explained that they only keep them for 2 weeks then erase the recording if there is no complaint. I quickly interjected stating that the recording was a critical piece of evidence and would validate or invalidate the officer's statements and accuracy of the officer's recollection of the stop. The judge reluctantly agreed.
I then asked, so what do we do the audio if they destroyed it. He suggested that I could file a Motion to Dismiss.
"Great, can we do that now?". The judge stated that it would have to be done in a courtroom in front of the trial judge.
This is the point in which I was confused and asked "isn't this a courtroom?" The judge repeated his previous statement (wanting to just go home as this case was becoming a bit difficult for a red light violation). I looked around to make sure I was where I thought I was and stated "I don't really get into trouble so I may be mistaken, but isn't this a court room and isn't this a trial, and aren't you a judge?".
He told me he was granting the continuance and I would have to make my motion at the next trial. "Understood."
I won the battle, but the war wages on and I know what my next move is.
The fine/bail for the ticket (which has to paid up front under Trial by Declaration) is $361.00.
How much money do you think this has cost the County and City by this point?
I am guessing a lot more than $361.00.
How much Advil do you think that the officer has downed in order to deal with this stress?
Me? Even if I don't get my money back, I have learned a lot about traffic court and how to be the one pulling the strings. Priceless!
Gianni thinks I am going to jail, but I reminded him that there are no laws against being difficult.