Right on Green, Part 2
Right on Green, Part 1 can be found here. And since people liked disclaimers in the last post, here are two more.
1. I don’t know if the officer who ticketed me was lying.
Let me say that more clearly: I am not calling the cop a liar. Now, I can cite some moments where it seemed like the officer wasn’t telling the truth — telling me that the other cyclist saw me run a red light, only to have her shout “NO!” as she rode by, for example — but was he actively lying? Only he knows. What I do know is that the officer didn’t see what he said he saw. I turned right on green and couldn’t have been coming from the direction the officer said. Period.
2. This took place in the 78th Precinct, but it is not about the 78th precinct. Inspector Michael Ameri, the former Commanding Officer of the 78th, was a true leader on street safety even before Vision Zero became official city policy. Captain Frank DiGiacomo, the current Commanding Officer, has continued to make great strides in those areas as well. While there are clearly a lot of problems with the NYPD when it comes to the departments relationship with bikes and smart enforcement, this is about one officer, not one precinct
Anyway, on with part two.
On Monday, February 9, 2015, over one year since I received a ticket for a red light I could not have run, my hearing was held at the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Traffic Violations Bureau in the Atlantic Center in Brooklyn. Readers from more civilized parts of the world might wonder why, in a country that prides itself on due process and swift justice it takes a year or more to have your day in court, so to speak. It might be fun to imagine that it’s because the police flood the courts with bogus bicycle tickets for things that aren’t illegal — which I’m sure doesn’t help — but it probably comes down to something far more American: lots of people contesting all sorts of tickets and not enough resources to process them all.
I was aided at my hearing by Steve Vaccaro, an attorney who’s better known for his work achieving real justice for people with far greater problems than an imaginary bicycle offense. Ticket hearings aren’t normally his thing, and he accompanied me to the DMV as a favor from one friend and fellow advocate to another.
When the hearing began, the administrative law judge explained that in order for the ticket to be upheld, “clear” evidence of the violation had to be established. This gave me quite a bit of confidence — after all, I had more than enough evidence to, if not prove things beyond a reasonable doubt to someone who wasn’t on 5th Avenue that morning, then at least show that the cop’s claim was rather thin.
Then the judge let the officer begin. “Tell me what happened,” he said.
There was something about those instructions from the judge — “Tell me what happened.” — that struck me as odd. It wasn’t “Tell me your side of the story,” or “Tell me your version of events.” Maybe I was reading too much into it, but if the judge’s job was to be neutral, telling the officer to explain What Happened didn’t fill me with too much confidence.
There’s no need to rehash what the officer said he saw. It’s all in the first post. The officer ran through his version of events, reading off a small piece of paper on which he had written his testimony. Then it was our turn.
Steve questioned the officer about the position of his car, what he saw, and all the rest. And then he submitted the following evidence on my behalf:
- A map showing my alleged route.
- A map showing my actual route.
- The picture showing the position of the officer’s car.
- The sign-in sheet from my daughter’s pre-K.
The Monday after I received my ticket, I asked my daughter’s teachers if I could take the sign-in sheet from Friday, January 31st, knowing it would come in handy at my hearing. The ticket the officer wrote me was time-stamped with 8:44 AM. I signed my daughter into her classroom at 8:30, so a sheet bearing her name, my signature, the date, and the time, was the best evidence that I was on Lincoln Place before I was ticketed.
A note about the evidence: Even though my hearing was classified as a “bike/skate ticket,” every piece of evidence I submitted was labeled as “Motorist.” “Motorist Map 1,” “Motorist Map 2,” etc. I know people like to argue that bikes ought to be subject to the same rules as cars, but come on! The bias is woven right into the nomenclature of the system! Justice is supposed to be blind, but in traffic court she wears driving goggles.
After I explained what happened, one of the judge’s questions was simple, if a tad unrelated to whether or not I had run a red light. He wanted to know if I had a seat on my bicycle for my daughter. Now, he could have just asked this question in order to paint a picture, but the more likely explanation — at least one closer to my experience of explaining my car-free lifestyle to relatives or friends who live in more car-dependent cities — is that he actually couldn’t quite imagine that people actually transport their children to school six whole blocks by bicycle. Honestly, if I had been on trial for running a red light in a car in the same location, can you imagine him asking, “Do you have a car seat for your daughter?”
Another of the judge’s questions involved whether I had taken the photograph before or after I had allegedly run the red light at Lincoln Place and was stopped by the officer. I told the judge that I took the picture before I was ticketed. As I explained before, I came around the corner, saw the woman and her bike stopped next to a car with flashing lights, stopped to take the picture, and then continued on my way before being chased down and stopped four blocks away.
The judge then asked the officer if could it have been possible that I ran the red light after I took the picture. You might want to recall that the standard for upholding the ticket, in the judge’s words, is establishing “clear” evidence that a violation had occurred. So empty your head of all other thoughts and read the next part.
The officer said that he couldn’t be sure, but that it might have been possible that I saw him pulling someone over, took the picture, and then went around the block before running the light. Essentially, in such an incredible scenario, whether I was coming from Lincoln Place or 5th Avenue the first time around would be irrelevant. It’s an amazing claim, especially when you consider that such a route would look like the map below. (Remember, the Chase Bank on 5th is where I saw the ticket sting.)
Think about that for a second. According to a theory posited by this officer of the law, it is entirely possible that on a cold January morning, I saw a ticket sting going on, snapped a picture of that ticket sting, and then went seven tenths of a mile out of my way up a hill and then down again, only to ride northbound on 5th Avenue and run a red light directly in front of an active NYPD ticket sting I already knew was happening. (Go back and read disclaimer number 2 in my first post and ask if that sounds like something I’d do. It’s not something anyone would do.)
That the implausibility of this idea went unchallenged by the judge did not give me hope.
The other big question was how to explain the 14 minutes between the time on the sign-in sheet at my daugther’s pre-K and the time written on the ticket. This isn’t as big a mystery as the missing 18 1/2 minutes on the Watergate tapes, and I had a perfectly logical explanation. My typical routine was to sign my daughter in when we walked in to school and then get her settled. That process usually lasted around seven to ten minutes. Add four to seven minutes to that, and you essentially have the time between me leaving pre-K and the cop writing the summons, which, as I explained previously, was delayed because I initially refused to give him my ID.
Now one player in this drama is conspicuously missing: the woman in the striped scarf who had been ticketed right before me. You may recall that the officer told me that she told him that I ran the red light, and that when he asked her as she rode by us, she screamed out “No!” You may also recall that thanks to the Transportation Alternatives bike ambassadors, she and I were able to get in touch and that she volunteered to come to my hearing to testify on my behalf. Well, this would be the perfect part of the story for her to burst through the doors of the hearing room, raise finger in my direction, and loudly declare, “Your honor, that man DID. NOT. BREAK. THE. LAW.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. My work schedule, a busy family life, and just the general passage of one whole year meant I simply didn’t have time to go the full Perry Mason and line everything up perfectly in preparation for this hearing. To be honest, I also felt guilty asking another person to take off of work to come testify on my behalf, especially when I thought there was a better-than-good chance that the ticket would be thrown out.
One thing that came up during the hearing was the issue of me not providing the officer with my ID immediately when I was stopped. If you recall, the driver threatened me with arrest. He also threatened the woman who he had stopped before me with arrest as well, but she provided him with a cellphone picture of her passport to avoid a trip to the precinct. The officer brought this up, saying that he had remembered our encounter quite well due to this fact, and in fact it was what caused him to remember so many other details of my alleged red light offense.
The judge, however, explained to the officer that he can not arrest someone for not providing an ID. Now, it can result in a trip to the precinct to verify someone’s identity, but not having ID is not an arrest able offense. Who knows what the officer was thinking when this was explained to him, but from my perspective he seemed genuinely chagrined.
Finally, it was time for the judge to render his decision. Despite some of the stranger moments, I actually felt like there was at least a small chance that Steve and had thrown some shade on the judge’s requirement that “clear” evidence of a violation be established.
Well, as you’ve probably guessed if you’ve read this far, I lost. (“I got a bogus ticket, the judge knew right away it was bogus, threw it out and asked the cop what the hell he was thinking” certainly wouldn’t have taken two blog posts to explain.)
The judge said that there was enough evidence to conclude that a violation had occurred. “Clear” evidence of a violation, at least in this case, simply meant, “The cop said so.”
I was ordered to pay $190 and told that I must not run a red light again through July 2015, a time limit that began from the moment of my alleged violation, or it would be recorded as a second violation. And, this being New York, you simply don’t want multiple red light violations.
Now, being told that I must not run a red light “again” when I hadn’t run one in the first place stung. But what also hurt was the sense that this officer’s experience was validated. Whether he actively lied or simply based my ticket on something he thought he saw out of the corner of his eye, neither exactly meet the standard one would want our police officers to live by as they enforce order on our streets.
But what also concerned me was the sense that I had everything going for me — some pretty good evidence, the help of a lawyer, the ability to take a few hours off of work — and I still lost. People who can not afford the time off of job, who don’t have a friend who feels like doing a favor, and who may be more intimidated in even as low-stakes a setting as traffic court… there’s not a lot many of the people who find themselves unfairly ticketed by the NYPD can do. And $190 is a lot of money for people who actually need to rely on a bicycle for transportation.
I want to be clear: My experience does not rise to the level of the Greatest Injustice in New York City. It’s an interesting story — I hope! — that brings up some troubling questions for how committed the average NYPD officer is to targeted, smart enforcement using rigorous standards in the Vision Zero age. It gives rise to this question: “If this, then what?” If this officer nailed me for a violation that didn’t occur, then what actual violations did he ignore that could have made the streets safer without wasting everyone’s time with a fourteen-minute traffic stop and an afternoon at the Traffic Violations Bureau?
Hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you’ll consider the question as we move forward in our efforts to make America’s Best City for Cycling live up to the honor.