People of the State of California v. G$
May 29, 2014 § 63 Comments
Last fall a movement began. A handful of riders in the South Bay stopped playing gutter bunny on Pacific Coast Highway and took their rightful place in the lane.
It was like the Prague Spring of 1968, and repressed cyclists, long confined to the detritus of the roadside and the terrorization of buzzing motorists, rode smack in the lane, forcing drivers to slow down and pass them, safely, in the left-hand lane. It caught on.
The justification for selecting the dominant position in the lane was legal and practical. Under California Vehicle Code Sec. 21202, bicycle riders are required to ride as far to the right as practicable unless the width of the lane is such that a bike and car cannot safely share the lane. As everyone who rides PCH knows, the narrow lanes (often less than 11 feet wide) make it lethal to coexist in the same lane with trucks and their tow mirrors, trailers, boats, buses, big-ass SUV’s, and even ordinary passenger cars.
Before long, the South Bay’s biggest, most visible, and most activist racing club, Big Orange, was leading all of its Sunday rides on PCH in the lane. Riders who were initially doubtful about the safety and benefits of riding in the lane rather than cringing in the gutters as they dodged nails, glass, rocks, cracks, garbage cans, and the rear-ends of parked cars, became believers.
At its height Big Orange was towing 70 to 80 riders in an orderly 2×2 formation down the best bike lane in America: the right-hand lane of PCH.
Trouble in paradise
That all came crashing down one Sunday last October when the ride, being led by Greg Leibert, was pulled over by a pair of sheriff’s deputies in a squad car. G$ was cited for violating CVC 21202 — failure to ride as far to the right as practicable.
Discussion was fruitless. When G$ whipped out his handy-dandy copy of the vehicle code, one deputy advised him that “I been writing these tickets for 20 years, I know the law, and you’ll never beat it.”
For this law enforcement duo, the sight of so many riders behaving like cars was too much. Despite the clear language of the law they slapped G$ with a citation.
In one fell swoop this single ticket turned the victorious PCH Sunday riders back into gutter bunnies. All the talk about how it was legal to control the lane was overcome with one traffic ticket. Who wants to go out for a Sunday ride and come home with a fine that runs into the hundreds of dollars?
With the same force of Leonid Brezhnev’s tanks rolling into Prague, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department had crushed the cyclist uprising.
LA County Bicycle Coalition to the rescue
But G$ wasn’t going down without a fight, and he had an ally in Eric Bruins, policy director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Eric had been working for months to arrange a meeting with the captain of the Agoura Hills Substation, which has jurisdiction of PCH all the way from Santa Monica to the county line.
When Captain Pat Devoren met with Eric, me, and Dr. Gary Cziko earlier this year, I laid out our chief complaint with riding on PCH: the lane was the only safe place to ride, it was legal for us to be there, and the sheriff’s department was illegally writing citations. After a few minutes, Captain Devoren raised his hand and smiled. “Guys,” he said, “I get it. I’m a bicyclist.”
We all looked at each other in amazement. A bicyclist in charge of law enforcement on PCH? The dogs must be crazy.
We continued the discussion for a while with Captain Devoren –an incredibly polite and professional man — and the sergeants who were also in the meeting. Some skepticism was expressed that riding in the lane was safe, but when we detailed the dangers of riding in the gutter, they agreed. “Anyway,” one of them said, “it’s the law.”
At the end of the meeting Captain Devoren told us that he would inform his deputies regarding the proper interpretation of CVC 21202 and that henceforth cyclists would no longer be cited for failure to ride to the right on those sections of PCH where doing so was unsafe, hazardous, or where the lane could not safely be shared with a car. The three of us walked out of the meeting in a daze. We felt like we hadn’t so much won a battle as gained an ally.
It was too good to be true but … there was still that matter of the ticket.
G$ and I showed up in Santa Monica traffic court on Tuesday morning. He had pled “not guilty” and we were going to try his case in front of the judge. Rather than descending into a he-said, she-said confrontation with the officer who wrote the ticket, we came armed to the teeth with two of the finest expert witnesses in the business.
It was the largest display of legal firepower to fight a traffic infraction that the court had seen in a while. Dr. Gary Cziko was going to be our first weapon, beating back the state’s assault on our right to ride in the lane with his unpronounceable last name. The strategy was that by the time the court had figured out how to spell it, then say it properly (Psycho? Seeko? Cheeseko?), they’d be so tired of the case that they’d acquit just to move things along.
If the slavic name stratagem failed, Gary had brought three gigantic exhibits showing the amount of space in lanes of varying width when the lane was shared by a bike and a vehicle. These exhibits would clearly demonstrate how deadly it is when a bike has to be in the lane on PCH with a fast-moving vehicle.
We planned to lay a foundation as to Gary’s expertise in cycling safety by pointing to his three decades as a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, his certification as a cycling instructor by the League of American Wheelemen and Cycling Savvy, and the scruffy patch of unshaved facial hair he’d missed in his morning shave.
We would further cement his qualifications as a cyclist to opine on the safety of the lane where G$ was ticketed by pointing out the bike helmet he brought into the courtroom, his giant commuter backpack, the strap around his ankle to keep his slacks out of the chain, and if necessary we’d take the judge out to the front of the courthouse where he could see Gary’s commuter rig chained to the flagpole, a misdemeanor. (Kidding. Gary would never chain his bike to a flagpole.)
After putting on the killer testimony of our hired gun Dr. Cziko, we planned to storm the battlements with the erudite and nattily-dressed Eric Bruins. Eric would testify regarding safe lane widths, standard lane width determinations under a variety of federal design regulations, and would further opine that the point at which G$ was ticketed could not have been safely occupied by a bike and a vehicle, and therefore G$’s decision to control the center of the lane was legal and defensible and the safest possible option.
After stabbing the twitching carcass of the police state with these sharpened harpoons, we planned to save the final bludgeoning to the head for last. We would put G$ himself on the stand.
In preparation for his testimony, our hero had shaved, brushed his teeth, bathed, put on deodorant, whacked the four inches of dust off his blazer with a carpet beater, and taken a 2-hour YouTube course on “How to Tie a Necktie without Strangling Yourself.” He was clean and buffed, his hair was combed, and he had even decided to wait until after the trial before re-dying his hair with his signature electric orange coiffe.
I had spent the previous six months preparing for this momentous trial, which I knew would be the defining moment of my career. I’d carefully analyzed every detail of the seminal CVC 21202 Supreme Court case, Pooky v. Festersore. In Pooky, cyclist Blood E. Festersore had been cited for “running” a red light. The arresting officer, Fluffer Pooky, had cited him for conspiracy to overthrow the government and Festersore received a life sentence.
In its landmark decision, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a unanimous court said this: “Guns. Benghazi. Obamacare is for commies.”
Victory for the little people
As the court came to order, Judge Kahn looked up. “The following cases are dismissed due to the citing officer’s failure to appear for court today. Case No. 292811, Greg Leibert.”
We threw our hands up in the air and began hugging. G$ broke down into uncontrollable sobs, relieved at the thought that he wouldn’t have to pay the $221 fine, and would only have to pay $4,000 for my legal services and $15,000 in expert witness fees.
Camera crews from CBS, NBC, and Pornhub.com captured every moment of the victory celebration, and the other people in court, although they would have clapped, instead cursed and threw cigarette butts at us for being lucky enough not to have to go to trial. After interviews with major news media, we went over to a coffee shop to debrief.
Everyone was amazed at the withering cross examination I would have unleashed, and we thanked Eric and Gary for the devastating expert testimony that they would have used to crush the state’s case. The credibility and forcefulness of the testimony that G$ would have given was so brilliant that we clapped him on the back for how great he would have been and how amazing we would have felt listening to him.
Of course the true import of Greg’s case is that as a result of our discussion with Captain Devoren, the Sheriff’s Department appears to have accepted that controlling the lane on PCH is in fact legal, and CVC 21202 citations will not be issued for riders who safely and legally occupy the full lane. Let’s hope that riders will begin to take advantage of this new development, and get back to the joyful days of last fall, when we could, with nary a care in the world, cruise the best bike lane in America.
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