Saturday, August 05, 2006

Peter's World -- A Fool for a Client

Just in case you have trouble with the whole concept behind "sporadic," here are the installments describing how Hey Skipper took a shot at midnight pavement gymnastics, got busted, then decided to take a trip down that empty elevator shaft into Peter's World:

Peter's World

Peter's World -- The Bust

Peter's World -- Time and Money

Show Time

The cha-ching machine of revenue enhancement by traffic enforcement had done a Jenny Craig on my expectations for the Powerpoint slides I was clutching, no matter the circles, arrows, and paragraphs of explanations on the back of each one. Nonetheless, as I returned to the county courthouse for my trial, I clung to my flotsam with the tenacity of a shipwreck survivor surrounded by miles of open sea.

The feel this time was decidedly different. Whereas the preliminary "hearing" was nothing more than a system designed to extract as much money while expending the minimum possible amount of time and effort, this plunge into Peter's World had a decidedly different feel. In this corridor of justice there was no snaking queue of those awaiting fleecing, but rather a less organized milling about of people, most in small groups, while a few, like I, were alone and becoming bewildered.

The Unusual Suspects

Having labored under the presumption that, in certain circumstances, it is far better to be forty-five minutes early than five seconds late, I had plenty of time to hang around in the paneled hallway outside Courtroom Three and observe my fellow alleged miscreants.

Outside the courtroom in which I was to plead my case, the population had winnowed to roughly a dozen people to whom the description of "usual suspects" could usefully be applied, plus somewhat fewer to whom the appellation "mouthpiece" clung tightly. The former group were all decently, but variedly dressed; the latter sported coats, ties, and briefcases. Funny how, even in a new environment, the plumage tells all.

More surprisingly, the miscreant demographics did not conform to my preconceptions, which leaned strongly towards 14-27 year old males. Instead, I was nearly the only member of Team Testosterone that wasn't hired help.

The jurisdiction whose judicial mercies I was soon to enjoy is one of the wealthiest in the United States, but has at its center Pontiac, known colloquially as "The Donut Hole," although "Sucking Urban Chest Wound" would perhaps be more appropriate.

The usual suspects reflected this. Several African American women of medium age and far less means stood quietly by themselves. A matched mother-daughter set, both in receipt of far more genetic largess than would seem fair, highlighted by attire clearly expensive in its subtlety, talked mea culpa strategy with their personal Peter. Another young woman of nearly identical age but of far less means, was surrounded by more family, not all of it on speaking terms, and a Peter wearing off-the-rack and carrying a brief case that had clearly seen these corridors many times.

Since I had long since given up on developing any sort of strategy -- given the stygian depths of my ignorance, to do so would have been akin to calculating time, distance, and heading from an unknown point en route to a mysterious goal -- I had nothing to do except overhear their various conversations.

The daughter whose aura of privilege was simultaneously inescapable and subtle, had hosted a party while her parents were out of town, and some of the guests had brought alcohol, leading to rowdiness, leading to neighbors calling the police, leading to arrests for underage drinking. Fortunately, the young woman had not herself indulged, but was guilty of enabling the whole affair. The goal of this Peter was to emphasize the young woman's clean record, personal sobriety, and throw in what a shame it would be if her college chances were to be dealt a crippling blow by such a blot on her record. Given the consummate attractiveness of this pair, I figured appealing to the mercy of the court was going to work just fine.

The other daughter, a high school senior like the first, was in a far more serious fix. Previous arrests for DUI and marijuana possession leading up to missing a probationary testing appointment looked like making a particularly tough row to hoe for her Peter. Her parents, all four of them, were there to demonstrate deep, abiding, concern. Unfortunately, while the strategy here was also to be an appeal to the mercy of the court, it was afflicted by a clear sense of Hail-Mary desperation.

Fool for a Client

In the midst of this reverie, made not-nosy in my mind by the physical inability to avoid it, my very own arresting officer, J. Von Kirkhove, walked up.

"Are you Mr. Guinn?"

"That would be me. How are you?"

"Good. I just had some shoulder surgery, but it is healing up just fine. So what's your beef with me?"

Somewhere in the empty recesses of my skull there was a little red flag waving. Something about he shouldn't even be talking to me, or I to him. But his demeanor was so pleasant that I immediately provided yet another example of why those who represent themselves have fools for clients.

"Oh, I don't have any beef with you at all. From where I sat, I didn't run the red, and it baffled me why it appeared to you I did. So I took a good hard look at the intersection."

And spilled my beans. All of them. In an instant, I learned three things. First, any hope I may have entertained that he would immediately say something to the extent of "you are so right" became as dashed as it was futile. Second, he didn't have his poker face on; he in fact had not realized the intersections asymmetric arrangement. Finally, I could see that I might as well pitch my carefully wrought diagrams in the dumpster, as I had just handed the enemy all the club he needed to beat me senseless in court.

Maybe Judge Judy is Real

Surprisingly close to the appointed time, but three minutes later than I needed, our doors to justice swung open, and a bailiff ushered the group whose diversity could have been chosen by central casting into a courtroom whose design must be branded onto our neurons. All wood, from seats to bench to walls. Every shape hewing to the golden mean. I'll bet even Chinese courtrooms, otherwise travesties of justice, pay homage to a Greek heritage completely alien to them.

"All rise for the honorable Judge Patricia Small."

And rise we did, for a singularly striking woman in her mid-30s, a blond who would turn heads in any crowd. Those heads would be filled with a mixture of aesthetic appreciation and respect, hair color be damned.

The first case was the mother/daughter matching set, elegantly, yet tastefully arranged with careful understatement. Judge Small reviewed the particulars of the case, and saw in it an almost certain one-off: dutiful daughter, caring mother, an instance of bad judgment ameliorated by no actual participation. Sentence: five minute tongue lashing, including a couple hints that it does not take much foolishness to founder even the most privileged yacht.

Bang goes the gavel. "Next case" goes the bailiff.

Whereupon one of the African American women, comparable in age and gender to Judge Small, but in no other particular, approached the bench. Like I, this woman had no Peter. Unlike I, she clearly had no option. Peterless, this woman started to plead her case: she had been stopped for driving with a burned out license plate light and, subsequently, without a license.

She had lost it through the kind of circumstances that routinely afflict the poor, and never enter the minds of the rest of us. Her car was very reluctant to start, so she left it running during a quick errand at a quickie mart. Her son, just 14 (and clearly fatherless), fiddled around with the cars controls in her absence. Having succeeded in releasing the brake and engaging a forward gear, the passengered but driverless car did a slow motion crash through the front of the quickie mart.

So far, so bad. However, and I'm not making this up, in the 21st Century equivalent of debtor's prison, the aggrieved party can cause the debtor's license be suspended for failure to pay a civil judgment.

Thereby making it even less likely the judgment will get paid. I am sure there is a rationale, but with regard to this single mother, it just wasn't leaping out at me.

Sentence: nothing. The woman had somehow succeeded in making good, and Judge Small simply couldn't see any point in the further use of traffic law to affect a situation having nothing to do with traffic safety.

Bang goes the gavel. "Next case" goes the bailiff.

Whereupon the other young woman, and her Peter, approach the defendant's table. The Peter starts the mercy-of-the-court approach, only to get cut short. Judge Small had clearly done her homework, quickly rattling off the particulars of the case, and went straight to the chase: this girl was an addict, and was well on her way to a life of misery.

Which led into an impassioned 20-minute lecture to the girl, and her four parents. I have no doubt that Judge Small knew her words would be unlikely to have any measurable impact on this girl's life. The Judge could have simply rendered judgment, moved on, and shortened her workday by nearly a half hour. But, just in case, Judge Small exploited her bully pulpit for everything it was worth, mincing no words in the process.

Sentence: weekly substance testing for three years. One failure, and it's a year in jail.

Bang goes the gavel. "Next Case" goes the bailiff.


As I approached the defendant's table, it looked way too big for just one person. Particularly compared to the other table, comfortably crowded with Officer Van Kirkhove and the prosecuting attorney.

Judge Small, who from my vantage point seemed not the least vertically challenged, looked me right in the eye and said "You are charged with failing to obey a traffic control device, to wit, a red light. How do you plead?"

"Not guilty, your honor."

Officer Van Kirkhove took the stand, was sworn in, and the prosecuting attorney went straight to a well practiced interrogation: "How long have you been with the force?" "What is your training?" "What time was it when you observed the alleged infraction?"

In five seamless minutes, it was my turn to cross examine Officer Van Kirkhove. Since my case was built around the two seconds that should have been missing, but weren't, I led with "What were your first words to me after you approached ..."

"Objection your honor. Hearsay evidence."

Well no duh, I thought. He said it, I heard it. What's the problem?

Judge Small was a bit curt with the prosecuting attorney. "Cut him a break counselor. He is new at this." Then, to me, "We can't admit conversation as evidence. Please proceed."

Well, isn't that just great. I didn't even get to finish my first question, and already my case was sinking faster than a greased safe.

Okay. Try again, differently. "Officer Van Kirkhove, how long was the light red before I entered the ..."


"Sorry counselor. Goes to statement of fact bearing on the violation, the witness may answer the question."

"About two seconds."

Whereupon Judge Small turned on me. "I don't see how this is helping you get to 'Not Guilty'"

Nor could any other mildly sentient inhabitant of the courtroom, no doubt.

"Officer, is there anything unusual about the intersection?"

Having already shown him all my aces, thereby substantiating any suspicions I shouldn't be allowed out of the house without close supervision, he promptly replied with what should have been my winning card: "Yes, there is an additional lane to allow right turns at the next intersection."

Oh well. This really was just a field trip into Peter's World.

"Would you please point out on this diagram where you were positioned when you observed my alleged infraction?"

Here Judge Small stopped me, and directed I approach the bench, so she could see my PowerPoint flotsam, with circles, arrows, and paragraphs of explanations.

Once again at the too big defendant's table, I asked the question that would finish killing my case. "Were you able to see the limit line marking the entry to the intersection?"

Expecting a firm yes, I was surprised by "I don't recall."

Which pretty much summed up my cross examination. Amateurish where it wasn't wholly incompetent, it failed to garner laughter from the gallery only because it summoned so much more pity.

Then it was my turn on the hot seat. Not being able to mimic a convincing out of body experience so I could properly elicit my own testimony, I simply turned to Judge Small and said "I approached the intersection well below the legal and safe speed limit. While it was close, my car had pierced the plane defined by the limit line before the light turned red. Had Officer Van Kirkhove been immediately behind me, in a position to simultaneously see my car, the limit line, and the traffic signal, he would have observed me complying with the law. The sudden addition of a lane on the right caused the appearance, but not the fact, of entering the intersection two seconds after the light changed."

Without so much as a blink of the eye, Judge Small turned to the prosecuting attorney. "Your witness."

With barely concealed contempt, he asked "What is your obligation regarding a yellow light?"

"Some part of my car must cross the limit line before the light turns red, or I must stop short of the limit line. I may not accelerate in order to enter the intersection before the light changes."

"That is wrong. You must stop if you can."

At this point I had, for the first time, a couple things going for me. None of which, unfortunately, included having actually read the traffic code in question. I possess an authoritative voice and can effortlessly rattle off paragraphs of perfect English; the combination lends authority to my utterances, too often more than they can repay. The other arrow in my nearly empty quiver was a recent motoring column in the local paper dealing with just this sort of thing. It wasn't the law word for word, but they didn't need to know that.

"With all respect sir, your assertion is incorrect. I need not apply my brakes sharply, or at all, in order to stop for a yellow. My obligations are two: I must break the plane of the limit line prior to the light changing, and I may not accel ..."

The prosecuting attorney clearly did not welcome receiving instruction on the finer points of running red-lights. Clearly annoyed, he said "That is ridiculous. You must ..."

Judge Small stepped in. "This case is in recess. Court clerk, will you please bring me the motor vehicle code pertaining to traffic control devices?"

Another case started while we awaited the appearance of the Book of Motor Vehicles holy writ. No, I don't remember its details.

Then the clerk returned, lugging a volume nearly too big for her to carry. Judge Small stopped the case to review the chapter and verse. "Hmm. Yellow light. Driver must ... Limit line."

"Clerk, will you please make a copy of the portion of the motor vehicle code defining the limit line?"

The other case finished. The gallery was starting to dwindle as justice was meted out. Finally the clerk returned once again, this time relieved to be carrying a single sheet of paper.

Judge Small looked at the paper. Then looked at the honking great book. Then the paper again.

"Court is in recess. I will be in chambers reviewing the law regarding red lights."

Five minutes passed. Then ten. Verging on twenty, Judge Small re-entered the courtroom.

And Now for Something Completely Different

"Will the defendant, arresting officer and prosecuting attorney please rejoin the court."

I returned to my too large table. Officer Van Kirkhove and the prosecuting attorney took their respective places.

Judge Small paused, then nearly without expression said "The defendant's assertion regarding the law is correct. There is no obligation to stop for a yellow light. The prosecuting attorney's assertion regarding the motorist's obligation is incorrect. Therefore, the state has failed to prove its case with the law and the preponderance of evidence."

"Case dismissed."

No amount of strategizing, analysis, or even sheer wishful thinking could have led to me to this. Of all the things one would have thought to be long since settled, along the lines of "don't run with that, you'll poke your eye out," the whole red light thing would have to be right up there. I walked in convinced I had a solid case blown by the kind of stupidity that even sheep routinely avoid, and walked out having won because the state didn't know how to deal with a red light. I would have been scarcely more astonished to walk into an operating room and discover the surgeon didn't know which end of a scalpel to hold.

As I walked out of the courtroom, Officer Van Kirkhove approached. "Good job."


I didn't change any names. Throughout, Officer Van Kirkhove and Judge Small were thoroughly professional. Had things turned out differently and I had lost, I would still have written this, and reached the same conclusion.

Officer Van Kirkhove could be on recruiting posters, and should visit schools. Judge Small could make far more money doing a Judge Judy TV gig (for those who don't live in the US, or haven't heard of the Judge Judy line of reality TV, don't ask). She clearly took her role very seriously, and did a remarkable job of making justice fit the crime. Considering that most people who have any occasion to be in a courtroom will be in one like hers, such seriousness is an important contribution to maintaining respect for the law. As it turns out, my next door neighbor is a county sheriff. When I related this story to him, and told him who the judge was, his opinion of her was every bit as high as mine.

As for the prosecuting attorney, I have little more than disdain. While his performance during the preliminary hearing was largely a product of a system geared more towards revenue than safety, his strident assertion of the law was as arrogant as it was comically misplaced. Being a tyro, I had a plausible excuse for being dead wrong -- I am well aware that my dissertation was based equally on bluster and luck. But he didn't. If you are going to relieve someone of property, you better darn well have some sort of clue what the heck you are talking about.

My gold medal in nocturnal pavement gymnastic left a mark. While I was completely sober, the thought that I could have unwittingly become a criminal, with all that entails, really got my attention. I take a back seat to no one in my disgust with drunken driving. However, the trend has been to make the limit for DUI ever lower, never mind the headline makers are all at the other end of the BAC scale. As the DUI BAC goes below .10 (in most, if not all, states, it is now .08), motorists are increasingly in the position of being convicted of a crime which they have no ability to know, subjectively or objectively, they are committing.

If there is another crime out there in that category, I can't think of it.

As for me, what started out as a field trip inspired by Peter Burnet, for which I had no expectation of a successful outcome, came up roses for the most unexpected of reasons, thereby proving the adage that you can't win if you don't play.

Just two weeks later, I was filling out an extensive employment application that ultimately led to a lottery winning kind of job, the kind of job that is very sensitive about things like running red lights.

Proof positive, as if further proof was needed, that it is far better to be lucky than good.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You oughta try to get that published, possibly in the Detroit city magazine (whatever it's called).

I am interested to hear what Peter has to say.

Having sat through quite a few mornings in District Court, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. For offenses less than felonies (and sometimes even then), the effort to fulfill all the requirements of the law for conviction is not worth the social payoff.

The system works, to the extent it does work, on the acceptance by miscreants that they got caught and gotta do the time, even if it's only going to AA for 12 weeks.

The real sociopaths slide through without noticing, occasionally an innocent or at least harmless schmoo (like your lady whose car went through the store) gets hassled.

It doesn't work very well. It's amazing that it works at all.

I have considerable respect for district judges who manage to keep up their sympathy year in and year out. It would grind me down pretty quick.

August 06, 2006 10:08 AM  
Blogger David said...

With no knowledge of Judge Smalls at all, I'd be willing to bet that she's been on the bench only a few years.

Congratulations on the new job.

August 06, 2006 6:58 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I agree about seeing if anyone wants to publish your story - it's interesting, and well written.

It also contains at least two good tips for those seeking to defend themselves in court: Read the applicable laws, and don't give detailed info about your proposed defense to the other side.

August 06, 2006 11:49 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper, that was very good and I add my voice to those encouraging you to publish. But before you give up your day job, remember that the first rule of mystery writing is that only murder cuts it. Running yellow lights won't get you into airport bookstalls.

I haven't been in traffic court in decades, but I suspect what happened is that your combination of luck and forensic brilliance gave you a way to let the judge decide for you on legal grounds rather than just believing you over the cop. Good traffic court judges know that the credibility of what they do depends on some people beating the rap sometimes, and they actually like to make some "not guilty" decisions. But as almost everyone simply challenges the cop's story, almost everyone loses. The Court isn't going to disbelieve the cop without a bloody good reason to do so, for obvious reasons.

August 07, 2006 4:58 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


What motivated me to write this, as evidenced by the title, was a visit to what was, or at least approximated, your world. It wasn't traffic court; most of the cases there spoke to the sort of things you see daily. The fractionated four parent family, no doubt the consequence of some dumb decisions somewhere along the line, and what could potentially be the consequence, a young woman on the cusp between a normal life and jail.

Of all the cases in the court that day, mine was the only pure traffic offense. The African American woman I mentioned was due to a chain of circumstances. Single mom, too poor to fix the car, the father not around to discipline his son, who caused thousands of dollars in damage, making his mom even poorer.

Beyond the Peter's World hook, my way-back-when lead in also mentioned the dichotomy between the lives Duckians lead, and those of a great many others.

The former undoubtedly are birds of a feather: analytical, always balancing the long term against the short term, and habitually immediate gratification disinclined. Consequently, by actively avoiding many self-inflicted vicissitudes of life, we simultaneously have far more resources to call upon, and much less need.

As such, we inhabit a sphere that scarcely touches that of the latter. Short term thinking, immediate gratification, less skill at playing the chess game of life. Except for you, Peter, the rest of us probably, and I certainly, have practically no knowledge of such lives.

Unfortunately, by the time I could put the story to pixels, I was working with distant memory -- the events happened between last October and January. Most of what was left to me was my particular case, but the most interesting part of the experience was everyone else's.


Read the applicable laws ...

Great advice, that. I certainly should have taken it. Since I was convinced I was going to lose, I didn't bother to trowel through the DMV code. Looking back on it, I suspect the prosecuting attorney took the tack he did because he saw I had demonstrated the state could not prove its case by a preponderance of the evidence. Therefore, he was left with attempting to assert that regardless of whether I got to the line in time, I shouldn't have tried.

His assertion was a recipe for festooning the landscape with rear end collisions.

So, while risking throwing my back out of whack with hearty self-congratulation, I don't think the judge passed out a gimme. I was prepared with evidence strongly supporting a not-guilty plea. That the case was thrown out because the state was so fantastically wrong about the law was more a moment of high comedy (and perhaps low humiliation) than anything else.

(Additionally, there may be some element of personality that was in play. While I hadn't received a traffic citation in roughly thirty years, I undoubtedly hold the world record, in the non-cleavage bearing division, for number of times pulled over and not cited: something like nine times.)


Thanks for your compliments. With some more work, it might be publication worthy. Unfortunately, I have utterly no idea how to go about such a thing.

Besides, there is no disincentive like reading Lileks every day.

August 07, 2006 6:56 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

There's room in the world for those of us who aren't the best at something.
Room, and also need. Lileks and his peers can't meet all of the demand for entertaining content.

August 07, 2006 7:12 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Congrats on beating the rap!

Your post was definitely worth the wait. I certainly have no problem with "sporadic" (I live by sporadic myself, when it comes to posting).

I think your story is every bit as good as a Lilek's post. That being said, I can't imagine it's worth the effort to get it published. Why not leave it as a Daily Duck exclusive?

August 07, 2006 10:30 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

What everybody above said. A terrific read, and well worth the wait. Your efforts in getting the case won and in writing about it are highly admirable.

Your comments in this thread bring to mind 'The Bonfire of the Vanities', and what happens when members of the same geographical space but different social spheres clash.

But as for getting it published - I'm not sure where it would fit. Perhaps the starting point for a work of fiction - find yourself losing the case, then sent to jail after being framed by the disguntled cop, who himself turns to drink and corruption, then battle your way back to final vindication thanks to superhuman levels of logical consistency and PowerPoint skill.

August 10, 2006 8:29 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

It's the kind of human interest story published all the time by newspapers and magazines: "What municipal court is like, and what happened to me there."

Like when Lileks did three days about being called for jury duty.

August 10, 2006 10:00 AM  

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