November - December 2006
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November - December 2006
A (Brief) Day in Court Ends Peter’s Most Excellent Adventure
By Peter Engel
Back in May, I wrote about getting a ticket from a uniformed patrolman during the February 24th Critical Mass in Manhattan. The $200 summons for “Disobey Steady Red” could have meant points on my license, or so I was told. The reality was that I didn’t do it, and the patrolman who wrote the ticket didn’t witness it. The police officer who did stop me by grabbing me by the back of my jacket, infamous NYPD Chief Bruce Smolka, did not sign the ticket. He also incorrectly told me I was Under Arrest.
For those reasons, I plead Not Guilty and was given an August 10 hearing date in lower Manhattan. To research what would happen, I spoke to alternative transportation advocates, attorney Gideon Oliver, and several other riders. During the interim period, one friend was given a ticket in the late April Manhattan CM ride. In pleading Not Guilty, she was told to appear in traffic court in a remote part of Staten Island, not even readily accessible by mass transit. She took the day off, but apparently the police officer didn’t bother. Her case was dismissed.
When my own appearance was delayed until September 21, I was fairly confident that it would be dismissed. Nonetheless, I made jokes about “going to the Big House” in case they found me guilty and I refused to pay. I was angry, though; it was one of those “principle of the thing” circumstances. Brian Hoberman graciously made himself available to bail me out.
All the pre-planning and slight agonizing turned out to be unnecessary. The case was dismissed within 45 seconds. Here’s what happened:
On Thursday, September 21, I arrived at the Rector Street traffic court at 4:30pm. My name was called 15 minutes after I checked in. The police officer who wrote the ticket showed. We both approached the judge at the same time. Call it macho, call it stupid, but we glared at each other for about 10 seconds like Sylvester Stallone and Mr. T. in “Rocky III’s” rematch scene .
Seriously, I didn’t think the police officer would dare to lie over something as minor as this. Nonetheless, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give him a look that said “I know what you’re thinking, and don’t do it.”
The judge then asked the officer if he wrote the ticket. He said yes. The judge asked what the circumstances were that it made it necessary to ticket a bicyclist. The officer replied that they “could not locate the paperwork specific to this incident.”
The judge’s response to that statement was that this hearing had already been postponed once. He asked the cop if he was requesting another postponement.
The officer replied “I guess so, your honor.”
The judge said “you know we can only allow one postponement for these cases. I have no choice but to dismiss the case with Not Guilty.”
That was it? No chance to accuse him of lying? No bailiff coming to drag me away?
Oh, well, that’s the movies and this is real life. I thanked the judge, got my driver’s license and hightailed it out of there.
What’s most interesting was the cop’s response to the judge: “we could not locate the paperwork specific to this incident.”
You can all draw your own conclusions, but I interpret it to mean the police officer took it as far as he was willing to go. He wasn’t about to claim he witnessed something he hadn’t seen, especially when the defendant was standing right next to him, ready to contest it.
At least one lawyer I spoke to, along with several bloggers, said that lawyers for the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA) tell their membership to simply “lose the paperwork” when forced by management into a situation like this. It makes sense. While I’m sure that the rank-and-file of the NYPD are not closet Critical Mass sympathizers, they aren’t going to put themselves at risk of perjury either.
In retrospect, both my ticketing officer and I were very lucky. No one got hurt. No charges were filed. It was over.
The same night as my ticket, you may remember, WCBS-TV Channel 2 caught video of Chief Smolka grabbing CM legal observer Adrienne Wheeler in Times Square from behind as she rode her bicycle past him, and then dragged her to the ground by a chain locked around her waist. In a September 27 hearing, Smolka had to admit this was done without identifying himself as a police officer or giving any warning. While the case against Adrienne Wheeler was quickly dismissed (and the NYPD was once again embarrassed in court), the Civilian Complaint Review Board action that she filed against Chief Smolka for his actions remains pending and unresolved more than 6 months later. The ticketing officer in that case was forced into an untenable situation. See this link: http://www.nlgnyc.org/
I feel sorry for the good people of the NYPD. Really. How many days do they have to go to court over bogus cases like this because the big bosses can’t get away with shoving their own version of vehicular law into traffic court procedure? And what toll does it take on their credibility as peace officers and public servants to the community?
The NYPD’s Critical Mass crackdown is mostly show with very little go. I’m now confident that you can ride the Manhattan CM and get a ticket with reasonable certainty of it being dismissed.
I’m still not doing it anytime soon. I don’t think Union Square on the last Friday of each month is a safe place to be. The ride remains very much a “cat and mouse” game between the bikers and the NYPD. Sooner or later someone is going to get seriously hurt. I witnessed a very blatant “corking” incident during the August 25 ride where one rider pounded up and down on the hood of an SUV. Several of us yelled at him to back off and I was ready to get physical when he jumped back on his bike, cursed us all out, and rode away. Yeah, real brave of you, pal. Go home and download “Jackass 2.”
Of course the cops are no better, riding their scooters the wrong way down one-way streets and corralling bikers like they are cattle bound for a Kansas City slaughterhouse. It’s sickening to think this is happening here in New York City and – as Chief Smolka continues to practice his trade unrestricted – it’s done without any real accountability.
Still, I remained enchanted with the ideals and communal spirit that a CM ride is supposed to embrace. Danny Lieberman tells me that the Brooklyn CM ride continues to remain free of stress, strife and Smolka. I’ll try that instead.