I spent weeks daydreaming about how I would Perry Mason the dude — calling him to the witness stand and cross-examining him until he realized the full meaning of hostile witness.
“I OBJECT! THAT IS HEARSAY!” … “HE CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH” … “OH, I’M OUTTA ORDER … NO YOU’RE OUTTA ORDER.”
All right, so I’m not an attorney, and have never cared to be one, but I’ve seen plenty of trials — in movies and in person as a cops/courts reporter in multiple states. And I was angry.
I was recently pulled over for, what I believed to be, questionable reasoning. I then sat meekly as a two-bit, no-good, dirty, rotten, ugly, menacing, jerk of an officer belittled my girlfriend and me.
Yes, I still might carry a little resentment on this. And perhaps I carry a slight bias. The man in question might be a fine cop that we caught on a bad day. Or maybe he’s a bad cop that I caught on a normal day.
The point is, I planned to tear into this officer’s character and knock him off his proverbial high horse. I didn’t actually care if I won or not. It was the principle of the thing.
I’ve never been one to seek conflict, but this officer turned me toward a different course. He ground my gears. All of them.
Four car passengers and I found him to be rude, unprofessional and, really, quite scary. I wanted to call him out in a public setting. To be self-righteous. To fight for the little guy: me.
I’ve been a party to the court process one other time, fighting a civil case against an unreasonable landlord. I hired an attorney and won. But my attorney’s fees were more costly than the amount that actually came back to me.
So I would be fighting this $175 ticket pro se — e.g. on my own.
Here are some cliff notes on the altercation: I drove four friends (three ladies, one guy) to a house in Gig Harbor. The passengers noticed a man two lanes over, staring directly through his window at us. This was not a casual glance — this was a hard stare from an intense man looking to make eye contact with people in the car. The women are sincerely frightened and, actually, ask me to get away from the “super creepy guy staring at us through the window.”
The “creep,” as you might guess, is an officer in an unmarked cruiser. And, lucky me, he is unhappy that I didn’t recognize him as an officer of the law.
At this point, the man appeared to be looking for a fight. After pulling me over, he approached my window and immediately confronted me about not heeding his silent advice: He’d been trying to get my attention and get me to slow down, he said.
“She saw me,” he said, pointing his finger through my window at Laura, my girlfriend who sat in the front seat. “So did he,” this time to the male backseat passenger.
“I’m so sorry,” I stumbled, caught off guard by the aggression. “We had no idea who you were or why you were driving at our side.”
“You were scaring us,” Laura added.
These responses didn’t sit well. The officer began to yell questions at me. When I didn’t answer fast or loud enough, he ordered me to get out of the car.
“Wait, I’m sorry. What did I do?” I asked.
“You don’t need to get out of the car,” Laura said to me. This may not have been entirely accurate advice.
“So you’re not getting out of the car?” the officer asked, leaving before I could respond.
The five of us sat stunned; unsure of what just happened. It was hard not to laugh and jump to conspiracy theories: this guy is going to plant evidence on me. He is going to throw me up against the hood of the car. Am I about to get shot?
“Please don’t escalate this,” said the male passenger, a former war journalist who was once shot and held as a prisoner of war during a conflict in the country of Georgia.
As I considered the use of a recording device to document the rest of the interaction, we saw two more police vehicles arrive. There were at least five officers on scene.
Another officer approached my vehicle – playing good cop to the others’ bad. He politely asked if I would step outside to separate me from the situation. I obliged. I had nothing to hide.
The officer informed me that I was dealing with a lieutenant. Apparently I’d angered him. Had I been drinking? Smoking? Had I ever smoked, ever? Had I ever done any drugs, ever?
He administered a horizontal gaze nystagmus test — having me follow a blue light with just my eyes. After about four minutes of eye-watering pupil gymnastics, he led me back to my seat.
The original officer returned shortly thereafter with a speeding ticket. He handed it to me but stared directly at Laura.
“This all could have gone much quicker if he’d just gotten out of the car,” he said, snarling.
As Laura and I brewed, trying to not let the interaction ruin our weekend, it became increasingly clear that I would be fighting this man in court.
So I slowly set up my legal team of one. I Google’d “pacing” and tried to figure out why the officer would pace me from the side, rather than from the standard position of behind. Why didn’t he use radar? Can Laura testify in her military uniform? I subpoenaed the officer and requested discovery on multiple pieces of information.
I checked the officers profile on the county website. His credentials were fairly substantial and he was also a county court liaison. Yikes. He may know what he is doing on the witness stand.
I sent a draft of my six-plus pages of notes and bullet points to a friend who recently graduated law school. She provided pretty simple advice:
“You probably won’t have this much time,” she said. “Shorten it.”
In essence, this is not a murder trial. The judge may not be that interested in what I have to say.
So I chopped my questions and opening and closing statements. I turned my open-ended, bewildered interrogation about what was going through this troopers’ mind into quick one-liners that would lead him with questions I already knew the answers to. I could feel my principled appeal to the judicial system slipping into the kind of “Just win, baby” defense that would make Al Davis and Johnny Cochran proud.
There was one question I couldn’t really answer: Was I speeding?
I really don’t know for sure. Most of the time, I’d trust if an officer told me I was driving 80 mph in a 60 mph zone. I’ve covered the crime beat as a newspaper reporter for more than five years in four states, and have worked with dozens of law enforcement officials over that time. I’ve found almost all of these individuals to have integrity and take pride in what they do. I am glad to live in a country where an individual has the right to speak up in a “my word versus the officer” situation. And I also think it’s wise that the officer generally gets the benefit of the doubt. The expectation is that the officer has no real skin in the game — that he or she is a trained enforcer of the law who will remember these situations more accurately than the likely nervous individual in question.
But, in my mind, this was different. This was an unnerving situation that involved an abrasive officer who saw a group of 20-somethings laughing together in a car. Did he expect it to be an easy DUI? Drug bust? Maybe it’s just me convincing myself, but I questioned the motives.
I worked on perfecting my script until 1 a.m. the morning of the hearing. After a quick sleep, I asked Laura to help pick out my clothes. Do I need a tie?
“It’s just traffic court,” she responded, as sweetly as she could.
I had her pick me out a suitable tie.
We arrived early at the courthouse and waited. My legs shook. Laura’s did, too. Every person who turned the corner or opened a door brought the eager inevitability that it would be our accuser. Laura was ready to glare.
And yet, a half hour after the case was scheduled, the officer was still nowhere to be found. About an hour after the hearings started, the prosecutor informed the judge that I had checked in, but that the subpoenaed officer had not. The judge said he typically gives law enforcement a half hour to arrive. Thus, it was time to move on. Case dismissed.
Even though we won, we felt defeated.
“I can’t believe he didn’t show,” Laura said, repeating it slowly two or three times. “All wound up for nothing. He probably didn’t even think twice about it.”
But the relief had also set us free for cockiness. The case was summarily dismissed. No fine to pay, no dock on my record. We walked out of the courtroom saying things like you do when someone doesn’t arrive for a fight.
“We woulda wrecked that guy… I really wanted to show him… to give him a piece of my mind…”
At the street corner outside of the courthouse we both finally declared victory.
“We WONNN,” I shouted, throwing my arms up in a “V.”
“Congratulations,” murmured a stranger in a bolo hat, as he walked past us on the street.
Thanks, man. We earned it.