It seems that once or twice a decade I wind up in traffic court. It’s never for some common thing. It’s always a bizarre incident. Before this week it was a few years ago when a guy alleged that my parked car rolled backward a few feet into his while I was in the backseat looking for something under the seat. The transmission was in park and the ground was level, so I didn’t see how that was possible. This week’s case was far more bizarre; an episode we’ve come to refer to in my social circles as the ‘Christmas tree caper’ because it stems from my annual collection of discarded Christmas trees in local neighborhoods each year for Baysave shoreline stabilization projects.
I’ll skip the head-spinning details of the case and get right to what I learned:
1) While our police and prosecutors are sharp, professional, and well-intentioned people, the number of systematic and procedural errors that go unnoticed or ignored in their systems is incredibly high. A good defense lawyer could probably have had my case dismissed on a handful of issues.
2) I had to point out numerous procedural errors to police, the court staff and the prosecutor’s staff. I even had to politely point out that the judge made an error in court, and he said that he was appreciative of me pointing this out. But I wonder why it falls on me to do this. How can one case have more than a dozen errors? What does this say about our legal system? What about the large number of defendants who would not notice the errors because they are unfamiliar with police procedure and court rules? (I have a step-child who is a local police officer and a son who is an attorney, former prosecutor, and I have much legal training myself but I am not an attorney). I likely noticed more errors than the average person entering the court system. Yet they seem unmoved by my questions “How could this happen?” In my own profession of tax law, such a high error rate would be cause for systematic redress (as has recently been in national news).
3) Humans can view the exact same scenario and report vastly different account of the ‘facts’ in court. I was described in this case as a six-foot-tall Mexican guy about age 40. I’m a 5’5 Jewish guy in my 60s. Nobody even seemed to pick up on the fact that the eye-witness self-described his condition as medically/legally as blind after implants in both eyes. I’m no detective, but today’s online sources make this information easy to find. The sole eyewitness plainly stated his visual impairment to the officer. Yet no consideration of it was apparently made in the case investigation.
4) Video is a better way to get at the truth than human testimony. I am glad that my home, business buildings, and vehicles have active recording devices installed. Yet it is very difficult to get video introduced into evidence. In an era when law enforcement feels entitled to lift Facebook and TikTok picture as evidence out of context, there appears to be no easy way to introduce security camera evidence into a municipal courtroom. A local defense lawyer said I would have no trouble acting pro se with such strong video evidence. But I asked several times to talk with the prosecutor before trial, with no response. I asked the court clerk for procedural instructions for introducing video evidence. She didn’t know. She said ask the judge. This matches my prior experiences when I told police over the years that our security cameras have filmed various crimes, and that I would provide a copy on request. As far as I know, none was ever utilized in a prosecution. Disturbing.
5) My background and training in tax law is to build your defense to be successful on appeal. I’ve never lost a court case on appeal in any jurisdiction. I presume that prosecutors almost always side with local police and that local a judge usually sides with the local prosecutor. This is a statistically grounded assumption and understandable human behavior. My tactic of building the case for appeals court is probably ‘overkill’ in municipal traffic court, but I’m stuck in that old dogs, old tricks rut.
6) I grew up in an age and culture where you wore a suit to court. Also, church, weddings, funerals, etc. Apparently, according to court staff, that is extremely rare today. One court officer said I looked like an attorney. I asked, “Is that a good or bad thing?”. Another awarded me as best dressed defendant. Silly.
In the end, all of the charges were dismissed except for a small one that cost less than what I would have paid an attorney for a consultation. If I went through trial, that would have been dismissed also. But that’s added time and cost, and of course a risk that my prediction of the outcome is wrong. This bizarre story is over, and I hope to be away from court for a long time. Still, I feel bad for those who face similar absurdities in the municipal traffic court system without the resources to properly defend themselves.