Karen suggested I write more about my visit to court on Friday (see Fool's Joy, April 16, 2010). She, as well as a few of you, know how much I like policemen. Each year I look forward to that telephone call from Officer X of the National Sheriffs Association and the "free" portrait of my family. In my study/studio, opposite the wall of pictures of me performing with the Leonards (Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Slatkin), Mstislaw Rostropovich, Erich Leinsdorf, Trevor Pinnock and others, I have pictures of my favorite cops, beginning with the one who issued a college freshman a bogus ticket for passing a stopped school bus when in fact the bus driver lied because the kid ticked him off after he irritated the kid. The kid may have deserved a brow beating, but not a ticket. I realize policemen are an essential part of the community that raises our children; it's our fault if we don't pay them enough to motivate them to get all the training they need. When stimulus funds became available last year, I quickly fabricated a book of heart-throbbing short stories designed to funnel funds to local police departments. It's not my fault that instead of spending the money on something forward-looking, the localities promptly purchased fancier cars and equipment, which is exactly what any respectable 16-year-old would have done.
Whatever. On Friday morning, when I arrived at court in my 2-piece gray suit (with the pleated pants and brown casual shoes) I made a point of bidding good morning to every uniform I saw and offering a few greenbacks because I know these guys deserve more than their salaries compensate them for the sacrifices they make protecting us from criminals, terrorists and, mostly, ourselves. I also made a point of arriving early to pinpoint the particular servant of justice who had chosen to stop my son at 2 A.M. one Sunday morning to make sure he was safe and sound and on his way home. Let me clarify; I did not offer him anything other than a cheerful greeting and a little thanks for his thoughtful behavior. I didn't want anyone to think I had an ulterior motive in mind. After all, I, as a licensed attorney in the Commonwealth of Virginia, am an officer of the court, too.
Having never appeared in this court, I had another objective. I wanted to observe a few other cases and experienced lawyers at work, on the off-chance I might learn how to approach the bench with a bit of fake competence.
Watching the "cattle call" (to use the words of the clerk to whom on Tuesday I had presented a letter indicating my appearance as an attorney) at 8:30 was a little disconcerting. The courtroom had so many seats unoccupied, the judge announced he would begin by hearing the cases involving those present, beginning with the front row. The result reminded me of communion, confession and offering, as the unfortunates one by one approached the bench to share their guilty pleas, offer humble "my bads," and take short walks with the bailiff to the payment clerk. "I'm sorry, your honor. I just wasn't paying attention to my speedometer." "Yes, I guess 91 in a 65 took a considerable lack of concentration, didn't it?"
After the cases of those without lawyers had been heard, three police officers took turns approaching the judge to review their complaints against folks who had failed to appear. Each mini-trial took a couple minutes as the judge attempted to verify each duck in its row.
Long ago, when I appeared fairly regularly in Northern Virginia courts, the judge or bailiff called out the name of each case. Not Friday. When it was time for defendants who had lawyers, the other lawyers in the room rushed to the bar and started their cases rolling. Slow on the uptake, I finally realized I might still be sitting in the next to the last row at noon if I didn't take some action. I strolled up the aisle. "Did you have something on your mind?" asked one of the busy lawyers. "No, go ahead," I said. He did, and proceeded to handle an underage drinking charge that took nearly half an hour.
I began to feel sorry for my poor officer, knowing he was anxious to get back on the road to protect us from danger, so I jumped immediately after the defendant of the underage charge discovered he was required to place $1250 in the offering plate, not to mention his lawyer's fee. I was none too soon, for the judge and prosecutor were looking my way, as if I were the only reason they remained. I may have been.
"What does the defendant plead?" asked the judge. "Not guilty," said I, briefly sensing incredulity that I would have the nerve to contest the case of a burned-out light. The prosecutor turned to the officer, who proceeded to refer to his notes to answer each question. It readily became apparent that either he had no recollection of the night that remained vivid in the minds of the vehicle's driver and passenger or some reason not to remember. I might have objected "independent recollection" if the case had been more important.
I began cross-examination with a recapitulation of the prosecution's case, "so the left center running light wasn't lit?" "Yes," said the officer (I'm paraphrasing here). "The other lights were working?" "Yes." With that answer, I relaxed. (How could he know the other lights were working if he didn't remember a thing? Who cares?)
"So as you drove up behind the defendant's vehicle and he pulled over to stop, the Dole light was working?" Here's where the questioning went downhill. After an hour or so of answering questions courteously in other cases, our friend's demeanor changed, "What's a Dole light?" I was going to say it's the hole in a piece of canned pineapple, but decided that might be inappropriate. Instead, I explained that after Mrs. Dole switched from Democrat to Republican she was appointed Secretary of Transportation, where her most famous accomplishment was requiring U.S. passenger cars to have a third brake light in the back window, above the other two. Well, maybe I didn't say all that.
I could have stopped right there, but I figured it was too early to send him back on the road to hunt up more burned-out bulbs, so I asked him about the two lower brake lights. "Also as you pulled up behind the defendant, did the other two brake lights work?" "I guess so." "So they were red until he depressed the brake pedal, at which point they brightened?" "I don't know." "Well, that's how brake lights typically work, don't they? They turn on red when the headlights are switched on and they brighten when the brakes are depressed?" He agreed. It was time to end this line of questioning. In fact, it was time to end all questioning. "I'm finished," I said. The prosecution was then kind enough to point out that it was dark outside at 2 A.M. on the morning of the alleged violation, so the lights were easy to see.
"Prosecution rests?" I asked. The prosecutor nodded. "I move for dismissal, your Honor," said I. "The prosecution has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a violation of the Virginia Code section cited (46.2-1013)." I described that section, which requires two red lights and illumination of the license plate. I also referred to the next section, which requires two lights to automatically exhibit a red or amber light "when the brake is applied." That section does not require a continuous red light prior to brake depression, but brake lights generally glow red continuously when the headlights are on. "It therefore (much as I try to avoid the use of this word, it inevitably slips in somewhere) appears, from the prosecution's testimony, that at least 3 red lights were on, including the two brake lights and the opposing running light, in full compliance with 1013."
We went back and forth, engaging in a fascinating discussion of a couple other sections of the Code that were basically irrelevant because the defendant had only been charged with a violation of 46.2-1013. Among other things, the prosecution argued that the term "light" meant "light assembly," pulled eloquently out of, shall we say, a back pants' pocket.
"I've noticed a lot of burned-out tail lights as I drive around at night," says Virginia. "Does that mean policemen know it's not a violation?"
"Well, maybe it is a violation," I say, "but not of 46.2-1013."
"Do you think, no, it cannot be," says Virginia, "that they don't cite the burned-out tail lights, and maybe other violations, because it helps to have something in the quiver in case they want to pull someone over for something else? Especially young kids leaving parties at 2 A.M?"
I didn't say that.
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