Sometimes, sweat the small stuff

November 6, 2014 § 26 Comments

The judge looked down at me from his high perch. “Mr. Davidson,” he said, “I’m dismissing the case against your client due to the officer’s failure to appear in court today.”

“Thank you, your Honor,” I said.

He smirked a little bit. “Your client must be exceedingly happy at the fine lawyering you’ve done on this case.”

I smiled back. “Thank you, your Honor. I do my best work unopposed.”

And with that I, my client, his wife, and my two expert witnesses left the courtroom, where the judge would spend the balance of his morning and part of the afternoon trying various traffic citations. If there’s a smaller, less significant, more bottom-of-the-barrel niche in the practice of law I haven’t found it, and it’s not for want of trying.

Everyone was slightly disappointed at this complete victory except me. My client and his wife had wanted to see some razzle-dazzle cross examination of Deputy Duvall, the L.A. sheriff’s deputy who had written the completely bogus citation for my client’s alleged violation of CVC 21202(a). This is the law that requires cyclists in California to ride as far to the right as practicable unless one of three exceptions applies. In our case, my client was riding out in the middle of the lane because it was of substandard width, defined by statute to mean that the lane is too narrow for a bike and vehicle to safely travel side-by-side in the lane.

My first expert, Mr. Tomato Shirt, was disappointed because we didn’t get a chance to lose the case at trial and then appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court of the Crab Nebulae, where, in a 400-page decision rendered by the justices, the question would be resolved forever and throughout the universe that cyclists have the right to control the lane.

My second expert, Mr. Tom T. Earnest, was disappointed that we had all wasted another day and lots of preparation time to defend a case that was simply dismissed. He and Tomato were also angered that the deputy’s harassment in the form of writing bogus tickets didn’t get slapped down in court by the judge.

I, of course, was euphoric for the reason that every lawyer everywhere is euphoric when he wins by default: Trials always open the possibility of defeat, and only a fool wants to tempt fate with a dramatic courtroom trial when he can go home with a guaranteed win in his pocket. Add to that the fact that traffic court trials are about as dramatic as watching your wife scrub the calluses off her heel with a pumice stone and you’ll understand that as a lawyer, I just wanted to win — and I didn’t care how, and I especially didn’t care if it was handed to me on a platter.

This was the second no-show by the same deputy for the same bogus ticket. A third one, and hopefully the last one, is on the trial calendar for January 15. No surprise, I’m hoping for a no-show by the citing officer in that matter as well.

But not everyone is happy. There are cyclists who can’t get TV out of their brains, and who think that you haven’t really won until you’ve done a Clarence Darrow or a Perry Mason or a Racehorse Haynes in front of a packed courtroom. Here’s why they’re wrong.

The problem we’ve had on PCH is symbolized by the bogus tickets, but the bogus tickets aren’t the cause. The cause has been an enforcement policy that wrongly applies the provisions of CVC 21202(a), ignoring the black letter exceptions that make it legal on almost all of PCH for cyclists to ride in the middle of the lane. That enforcement policy comes primarily from the captain of the sheriff’s substation with jurisdiction over PCH, and you can fight tickets all day long but until the enforcement policy changes, you’re just swatting at flies in a manure field.

The aggressive, engaging policy of Eric Bruins and LA County Bicycle Coalition, the support of Greg Seyranian from Big Orange Cycling, the effective analysis and advocacy of Gary Cziko on the CABO forum and elsewhere, and the commitment of hundreds of cyclists to ride in the lane on PCH are what brought the sheriff’s department to the table. After several meetings, a ride-along where deputies could see the difference between riding in the lane and hugging the gutter, and an educational seminar for law enforcement officers, the captain of the substation, with the support of the L.A. County Sheriff, accepted the cyclists’ position on proper application of CVC 21202(a).

This wasn’t done through court trials, or flaming verbiage, or adversarial proceedings against the enemy. It was done between adults, evincing mutually respectful attitudes, trying to find a working compromise to a complex issue that requires balance between motorists, cyclists, and everyone else who uses PCH. As satisfying as it might appear on TV to destroy the opposition in court, it has been infinitely more effective to earn their respect and support and thereby change enforcement policies.

The fact that LASD has not written any more of these tickets to riders occupying the lane and the fact that the citing deputy hasn’t shown up to contest the ticket mean that cyclists are winning on PCH.

On the way back, though, my client was worried. “How’s your practice going?” he asked.

“Fine, thanks. Why do you ask?”

“Well, you know, pro bono defense of traffic citations … ” he trailed off.

“That’s why I have a PayPal link on my blog,” I said. “And anyway, sometimes it’s the small stuff that, in the end, is the biggest stuff of all.”

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