I went to court this week for the first time in my life, deciding to contest a ticket issued on December 22 for failing to signal a left turn. I was waiting at a red light to exit a Ralph’s parking lot in Encino, 11 AM on a sunny day. It was a long light. Eventually it turned green and I proceeded about 40 feet and stopped again to let pedestrians cross. Once the way was clear, I completed my left turn and then stopped at the red light on Ventura. When it changed, I started off and the police appeared behind me with lights on and I pulled to the curb.
When the officer asked if I knew why he had stopped me, I said, “I have no idea.” He said, “You failed to signal a left turn.” I did not believe that to be true…but I have lived my life with this guidance from childhood: Do Not Argue With The Police. Ever. So I don’t, never have. When asked, I gave him my license, registration and proof of insurance. His female partner took them to the squad car and he retreated to the sidewalk, rocking slightly from side to side…for the next ten minutes. The female officer returned and offered me a ticket to sign. She handed me my license and registration. The ticket clearly noted my insurer (USAA) so she’d obviously had possession of my proof. I asked for its return and she said she’d given it to me.
Not true. The officer suggested that I look in the binder where I’d removed it. I showed him it was not there. “I gave it to you,” I said. He said, “Well, I gave it to my partner.” She went back to the car to look and he again insisted that I look in the binder. “It’s not here. This is a registration. This is not a proof of insurance,” said I.
He looked at me coldly (his jaws had been pretty tight from the beginning) and said, “The reason we’re having a problem is your bad attitude.”
OK, seriously Tucker, time to shut up. She returned, had found nothing and they waited for me to sign the ticket. I read it carefully, buying time. If I pulled away, they could flag me again and cite me for driving without insurance. Might sound paranoid but that possibility was very real for me. I finally decided that I had no choice, signed the ticket and warily drove off.
I was angry. I thought the entire beef was chickenshit, two days before Christmas, my intentions clearly obvious at every moment, I believed that my signal had been turned on as I waited…and being intimidated by police officers in my own neighborhood, no I didn’t care for that at all. Additionally, this was a moving violation which meant points and increased insurance costs. That didn’t sit well with me either.
I got home, by now a little smoke leaking from my ears and started checking into options. One allowed me to post bail of $245, plead not guilty and request a court date. That’s what I did. I wanted the chance to face my accusers on neutral ground and under oath. Weeks passed and I was scheduled for March 20th, three months after the event.
Days before, I revisited the site, checked Google maps, drew a diagram of the crime scene, paced off the distances, timed the lights.
The week before I accepted a role on a tv pilot, The First Family but they had to first agree to allow me to keep my court date, which they graciously did. I show up at the Chatsworth court at 8, get thru security and get in a very long (and very wrong) line. 8:30 (Show Time) comes and I’m concerned, this line ain’t moving. I ask a guard who directs me downstairs to a real courtroom, cops on one side of the room, perps on the other. The bailiff logs me in, I avoid visually engaging the police and sit to wait. As I do, cases are being dismissed for no shows and I learn that the court can find you guilty, fine you and also assess court costs. A bunch of folks right then decide to plead No Contest.
I recognize the female officer to my right. I’d looked over there earlier when a friendly motorcycle cop asked me whether I was an actor. Bailiff tells us to buddy up and share any evidence or exhibits we intend to use, so she waves to me, we go to a corner and I show her my diagram. “What exactly do you intend to argue?” she asks. “I just want to present my sequence of events”, I say. I’m being cagey but also careful…hell, this IS my first rodeo. She shrugs and we part. Three cases are tried, each ending in conviction, then I am called. The judge told us the officer will testify first, then the plaintiff can ask any questions regarding that testimony and finally the plaintiff (me) gets his moment in court.
The female officer presents a fairly succinct account, marrying at times he did or she did to we did. No worries, it was close enough. I’d written four questions and asked the first. “When you first observed me, was I stationary or in motion?” Her answer was ambiguous…but when I tried to press her, the judge said, “I think she’s answered the question.” Well, not really, your honor…but I didn’t sense any love, so I went on to #2. “Did I present to you my license, registration and proof of insurance?” Yes, you did. “Did you return to me my license, registration and proof of insurance?” Yes, I did.
OK, I’m a pretty good actor but my stunned look was genuine. I started to speak twice and stopped. I was tempted to ask, “Officer, you realize that you are under oath?” Somehow I didn’t think I’d earned enough good will to go all Perry Mason on her ass…and my final question, “Did you offer an apology or explanation for not returning his proof of insurance?” seemed kinda pointless, now.
I gathered myself and began, now aware of the ground rules: police officers may lie from time to time. I began my explanation (yearning to ask “Your honor, May I approach the bench?”), instead gave my diagram to the bailiff who took it to the judge. “Good, I know this area well. Proceed.”
“Your honor, the light for E-W traffic on Ventura is a long one. I even had this thought as I waited, “Man, this is a long light!” I timed it, it’s more than 70 seconds. My turn indicator makes a clicking sound and I was aware of it. Once the light turned green, I proceed and then waited for pedestrian traffic to clear. I then completed my left turn and stopped again. Finally I was pulled over.”
I then described the police actions, the missing document, the veiled threat, my uncertainty about what to do. The judge asked, “Did you ever receive your insurance form back?” No, your honor! (and I didn’t stutter. ) The judge thought a bit and acknowledged that I had not been treated with fairness by the officers…but that had no bearing on the charge, of turning without signaling.
The judge then took up my lead.
“Officer, when did you notice his car?”
“It was in the intersection, I noted the pedestrians.”
“Can you be certain his turn signal was not on as he waited.”
“No, your honor, my attention was connected to the pedestrians.”
This much was clear to me: The judge had taken on my cause. He made my case for me. Long story short, at that point, the judge said, “I’m going to find for the defendant in this case. All charges to be dismissed, bail to be refunded.” (Sound of gavel being struck)
My heart pounding, the urgent impulse to break into my happy dance sequestered, I said “Thank you, your honor”, gathered my file of documents and got the hell out of there. I did not look at the female officer; they both know where I live. But from the moment that she lied, I was as alert and attuned as I have been in a great many years. I listened to every nuance, ran every permutation, weighed every word I spoke for its precise function to support me and not offer grounds to rebut me. That was a lot of fun…but it was hectic, pretty intense. I don’t know that I’m cut out for that kind of work, full time.
25 March 2012