Author: <span class="vcard">Principled Observer</span>

I came across this story the other night.

Recall that I too was pulled over for honking at a law-breaking police officer. In my case, I had no video. Plus, I didn’t handle it as well. I didn’t stick to the “you were breaking the law” aspect of my honking. When stopped by the police, it’s difficult to remain calm but persistent. It’s easy to let them control the dialog, in which case it turns into a normal traffic stop in which you are the culprit. In my case, Officer Johnson didn’t think she did anything wrong and I didn’t push the issue like I should have.

As for the video above, I am not sure how the officer would have acted if there was no recording. Maybe he would have still been decent about the whole thing. It’s certainly true that some officers are good people. I do believe that they should be called out on it any time they violate the law. Yes, I think 50% of traffic laws are stupid. But I think that the only way we get a fair balance of freedom and safety is for us to push back and make sure that those in the system have to abide by the same laws. This way, if a law is truly terrible, I believe it will be repealed. If a law is fair, then it’s reasonable to expect that the police should follow it as well.

bad cops Iowa

I did a little Google search and found that, in addition to this site of course, Officer Johnson of the Ames Police Department has one other notable mention. It seems that she found drugs on a guy during an illegal search a while back. Arresting a guy and having the court of appeals decide it was an illegal search must be a good source of embarrassment for a cop.

The original link to the court document is now dead.

The best part is her testimony…
Q: You had suspicion that it was drugs?
Officer Johnson: Yes.
Q: You didn’t have probable cause?
Officer Johnson: Correct.

So she was not only horrible on the stand; she also admitted to some pretty dishonorable police action. It raises the question of why she knowingly conducted an illegal search.

bad cops Iowa

Back in 2008, I was going to school out in Iowa. One of the first times I came home to visit my parents in Springfield, Ohio, I got my car out of the garage for a quick trip to a coffee shop. Halfway there, I was going 55 miles-per-hour in what I thought to be a 55 zone when I was pulled over by Deputy Brian Melchi of the Clark County Sheriff’s Department. He claimed that I was doing 55 in a 35. Now the road in question can be a little confusing. In Ohio, when you encounter a sign reading “Speed Zone Ahead,” this means you are currently in an area that has fallen back to the default 55 MPH limit and you are about to enter a speed zone. On the other side of the road (the oncoming lane from where I was driving), there is one of these signs. On my side of the road, there was no sign reading “End Speed Zone.” I had always assumed that the speed zone ended anyway, as I was familiar with the road and this is usually the case. Usually, but not always, the speed limits are symmetrical, particularly in cases like this where you are leaving the city and heading out into the country. So naturally when Deputy Melchi stopped me, I told him I thought it was a 55 zone. He said, specifically (and this is important for the court testimony I describe below), that it was only 55 MPH in the oncoming lane, but not in my lane, where it was still a 35 zone. At the time I figured he must be right. Afterall, there was no sign. It is still stupid to ticket somebody for accidentally breaking the law like that because it’s obviously not going to have a deterrent effect, but cops do this all day so it’s not that surprising.

But what was the real speed limit?

This is where it gets good. For good measure, I contacted the Clark County Engineer’s office. I very quickly learned that my intuition had been correct and that the speed limits were perfectly symmetrical on that road. Now this may seem a little incompetent given that the sheriff’s station was actually on this road, but it wasn’t posted so maybe Deputy Melchi couldn’t have known. Ticketing me could have been ethical if it hadn’t been for the things he wrote on the ticket to artificially inflate his case. One thing, which I pressed him on at trial, was that he checked “moderate” traffic when there were zero other cars in sight from the time he clocked me to the spot 1/4 mile up the road where he pulled me over. Second, the code he wrote wasn’t actually for speeding, but for “excessive speed.” This is actually an important distinction, and it could have been a way to hedge his bets if he was wrong on the speed limit, but it didn’t come up in court. It did make my defense less effective at court, however, as I technically needed to convince the magistrate that not only was I not speeding, but that I also was driving a safe speed. Finally, Deputy Melchi also wrote the incorrect block number on the ticket. He wrote 800 block on the ticket no more than a few minutes after verbally telling me 900 block! In reality even 900 block was inaccurate, as the numbers were much higher where he clocked me. Because there were two houses in the 800s before the speed limit changed, this also made my defense less clear.

My day in court

Of course I did fight the ticket, considering that I had been ticketed for doing 55 in a 55 zone. I subpoenaed the county engineer, Bruce Smith, and had him bring his records pertaining to the speed limits on the road in question. Before the trial the prosecutor illegally spoke to my witness without me present. At the time, I didn’t know it was a problem when he called him into a room, but I found out later that I should have been present for the discussion. In court, the shady prosecutor objected when I called my witness, saying I had already testified about the speed limit. The magistrate overruled it, luckily. The county engineer testified that the speed limit was exactly the same in both lanes. Deputy Melchi testified that he didn’t notice a sign saying that the speed limit had changed, but to his credit he was truthful. It is true that he may have had good reason to be wrong about that speed limit.

My problem at trial was that the prosecutor and Deputy Melchi both were spineless on the offense. If either one of them had any dignity, they would have dropped the charges after finding out that the county engineer was prepared to testify the exact opposite of what I had been told by Deputy Melchi at the side of the road. If I had been a real lawyer, I could have possibly pressed this discrepancy successfully on cross examination, but as Deputy Melchi’s car allegedly had no video and audio recording, it would have been difficult to prove what he said when he pulled me over.

The magistrate, Albert Stewart, found me guilty even though nobody ever really said anything coherent that resembled evidence that I was going above the speed limit. The magistrates in these types of cases are basically looking for any little shred of information to convict. The courts are funded with court costs paid by the losers and the magistrates/judges tend to have a soft spot for believing the cops are always right and that only a troublemaker would contest a traffic citation. The prosecutor threw him that shred of information when he asked me if I might have sped up early. He kept asking me to clarify what speed I was going at different points, but I never misspoke. Obviously I didn’t speed up early because I had turned onto the road just before the speed limit went to 55, but that was all the suspicion Magistrate Stewart needed to find me guilty. He even told me that he weighted Deputy Melchi’s testimony higher than mine, though this is a ridiculous notion because Deputy Melchi basically admitted to not knowing the speed limit. He did say that he liked my defense and thus he suspended the fine, which is convenient because he still got me to pay his court costs (which account for an absurdly high percent of the total cost at $138). I was also technically supposed to lose 2 points, but I never saw those hit my Arizona license. Overall, I’m confident that the government lost money on this matter, given that they paid a lawyer, a cop, a judge, and the county engineer to sit in court for 30+ minutes.

The system is basically a bunch of scumbags

On the way out of the courthouse, I asked Deputy Melchi if it is ever really about the truth. He indicated that he has no problem with the prosecution’s tactic. That’s funny, because at the scene he said that I would not have been speeding if I had been in the other lane, which is exactly the opposite of what the magistrate said. Deputy Melchi was in a position to stop the whole debacle, but it would have required admitting that he was mistaken.

Note that I unfortunately do not know the prosecutor’s name. I wish I did, because as I mentioned above I believe he illegally handled my witness and because he is scum for going after me so hard on a traffic case where I was obviously innocent. He deserves to have his name attached to this trial, but the only way for me to get it is to pay an exorbitant fee to get the transcript typed up. The prosecutor’s office doesn’t even have a record, allegedly.

So that’s the story about how Brian Melchi caused a poor college student to pay $138 for driving at exactly the speed limit.

bad cops Ohio

I was driving along one night in Ames, Iowa when I saw a police officer (Adrienne Johnson) parked with all lights out in a manner that completely blocked a driveway and partly blocked a sidewalk. I honked because she was illegally parked. Of course it’s no surprise that the officer’s ego was too big for that. Apparently it is illegal to sound a horn in Ames so she gave me a ticket, which I fought out of principle.

I knew I would be found guilty because that’s how traffic court works, but I went ahead and wasted way more than $60 (the price of the ticket) of the system’s time. I saw it as a cheap way to get some more courtroom experience while exercising my rights. I went through the process and discovered some pretty shady things along the way.

The law in Ames doesn’t allow for a deposition in such offenses but the prosecutor’s office has an open door policy so they were actually pretty helpful. That said, the prosecutor and the police officers I spoke to didn’t seem to understand the purpose of a deposition. They acted like there was no good reason to have that information before trial. It’s common sense that you want to know all of the officer’s answers before you ask the questions in court. That’s why depositions are allowed for bigger offenses.

Then some major shadiness occurred when I attempted to get dash-cam video footage from the Ames police department records division. First, I called and was told that I needed a subpoena to get that and I was specifically told that public records laws do not apply. I did some looking on the internet and found that the police department must give up video footage in most cases and that to knowingly deny access to public records is a misdemeanor. It’s really too bad that I didn’t get that person’s name, though the refusal was probably simply due to lack of training. Then I walked in to the records department in person. I told the employee there, Cheryl Spencer, that I’d like to get some footage. She asked me what I needed and I told her that I could give her an officer, date, and time period. She said that wasn’t good enough and that I needed to identify the incident. I was very adamant that I didn’t like being required to tell her my name and the case this was in regards to. It happens to also be illegal. Iowa public records law requires only that I give enough information for a subject matter expert to retrieve the requested document. Finally, I was told that if I wanted it, it was going to cost $23. The price seemed a little high to me considering that Iowa public records law does not allow for a profit to be made on the duplication of public records. For these reasons, I contacted the ombudsman at the Iowa Attorney General’s office in order to get the Ames Police Department to start obeying state laws.

Finally, let me tell you about some of the ridiculous things that Officer Adrienne Johnson (she goes by Adi) said in court. Part of the reason I fought this was to bring light to the types of ridiculous things that officers say in court. The officer is the only witness against a typical traffic-court defendant. For that reason, officers have to come in there acting like they know their stuff and remember details of the encounter even though in reality they have pulled enough people over in the past two months that there is no way they can be a good witness. Let’s just say in a felony trial, such low-quality witnesses would be impeached quickly.

1) She claimed that she was an expert on license plates and that’s how she noticed an Arizona plate on a car earlier in the evening. When I asked her to describe an Arizona license plate, she said simply that it is yellow. That’s not very accurate. The background behind the numbers on an AZ license plate is white. When I asked her what color the letters are, she didn’t know. When I asked her how it differed from an Ohio license plate, she didn’t know. When I asked her if she could tell the difference between an Arizona license plate and an Ohio license plate, she said no. She ended up acknowledging that the car that drove by could have had either an AZ or OH license plate. Her original statement is called perjury.

2) She went into great detail describing how dark it was where she was sitting and then, 10 minutes later, explained how it wasn’t really that dark. This is also called perjury.

3) When asked what road I was stopped on, she named the wrong road. It wasn’t just me tripping her up on names either. She legitimately thought she pulled me over on the major road that was north of the small side street that I was actually stopped on. This is pretty bad memory considering she no doubt studied her notes beforehand.

4) When asked if anything was different about me on the day of the trial from when she stopped me, she didn’t notice my full growth of facial hair in contrast to being clean shaven when stopped. This is pretty bad memory. At about this point she acknowledged that it had been two months so she didn’t remember many details.

5) One interesting thing I discovered when looking up the relevant city ordinances is that, in Ames, an obscure code requires a person to honk before making a turn if there are pedestrians around. Officer Johnson did not know about this law, but she was nice enough to state on the stand that she was sitting there because there were a lot of pedestrians around after spring break. Considering I was about to make a turn, I was exactly within the letter of the law. On the stand, she said that the other part of the code didn’t apply to me because I was honking at her. Honestly, what type of terrible police officer would cite somebody for obeying a law simply because she didn’t like the reason? Just because she doesn’t want to follow the law doesn’t mean that I wasn’t in the right.

I took the stand since I knew I would be found guilty either way. But really, I shouldn’t have. Seeing how little credibility Officer Johnson was on the stand, a fair court might have thrown the charges out. The good news is that, after this case, the City of Ames was required by the state Attorney General’s office to change the price structure for dashboard camera footage.

bad cops Iowa

I was in Arizona in the spring of 2007 and I rented a car to drive to Nevada for the weekend. The car was a Chrysler PT Cruiser, rented from Enterprise Rent-A-Car. I went home to Ohio a couple days later and returned to the house in Tempe in July. On the last full day of my July trip, I went through the mail that my roommate had collected for me. I found a Scottsdale photocop ticket amongst the papers. I also noticed a lot of junk mail for how to beat photocops, so apparently this ticket was publicly released.

Here are scans of what I received:
Incorrect photo citation from Scottdale Arizona - text pageIncorrect photo citation from Scottdale Arizona - image page

If you look critically at these images, you should be able to easily spot the error. The vehicle shown is a Jeep Liberty while the ticket refers to a “CHRY PTE.” It would be somewhat forgivable if the readers of this page don’t catch that, but a person who is trained to review these before sending them out should spot it immediately. Notice that Bill Harper has “signed” the ticket.

I am aware that all I really had to do was throw the ticket away because they would never have been able to serve me in Ohio. Due to an experience my uncle had and other stories I’ve read online about dishonest process servers, I thought I’d just go down to the courthouse and clear this up (I was innocent, after all). I had been planning to drive up to North Scottsdale to work on my boat, so I stopped by the courthouse on my way. I didn’t see any reason to change into something nicer than my “working on the boat” clothes, so I wore jeans, a sleeveless shirt, and some sandals. I got to go in and speak to the judge but, since there is no prosecutor at those hearings, he could do nothing for me. I believe that a prosecutor is not present at those hearings because the system is set up to facilitate people just paying and not fighting. All he could do was schedule a court date in a few weeks. Obviously that was not going to work for me since I was going home the next day. I did get the judge to direct me to the prosecutor’s office, which was behind the courthouse. I went over there and waited a few minutes to speak to the prosecutor that handles photocop tickets. She was friendly and agreed to get it dismissed. When I asked her who Bill Harper is, she said I was wasting her time and that she wanted to eat lunch! I sarcastically told her that I had planned on eating lunch as well, at which point she sort of acknowledged my wasted time. It’s not like she really had any option but to dismiss the charges. If she had brought me to court knowing that all of the evidence pointed to another person, it would have been malicious prosecution.

A week later, my roommate in Tempe called me saying I got a letter from the Scottsdale courts. I had him open it and it turned out that the motion to dismiss had been denied! I had a court date set for the exact date of my move to Iowa. It said if I didn’t show up, I would have a default judgement issued against me. I wondered who the heck I was going to fight in court if the prosecutor agreed with me, but obviously this would not do. I called the prosecutor’s office and eventually got ahold of her. She looked into it and eventually called me and apologized and said she was embarrassed that this happened, but apparently the paperwork was filed wrong. She filed it again and the next week I got a letter saying that the case had been dismissed.

What happened

I have communicated with several people about this. They all confirmed and enhanced what I already knew about how the system works. Apparently at the time of my ticket, Scottsdale had a contract with Redflex to administer their cameras. Redflex is a private company that sells, calibrates, and operates these systems (an obvious conflict of interest). Apparently what happened in my case is that the license plate photo was blurry so the computer accused the wrong car. Enterprise Rent-A-Car pointed at me, so I got the ticket. Redflex is supposed to have three people look at each ticket and then, once they have approved it, a police officer is supposed to give it a final review before sending it out. It is common sense that the only reason that a person reviews the tickets is to pacify the public, who would be alarmed that a computer could wrongly accuse a person. In my case they all failed to notice that the vehicle in the picture said “JEEP” in large letters on the back, when they were ticketing a PT Cruiser. This is probably because the system is more interested in the money than properly identifying the culprit.

The players

Some of them have been more helpful than others but none of them seem to value my time. They all have the attitude that I got lucky and handled this properly so I didn’t have serious problems. I think that my time is important and they need an exercise in humility so they should write me an apology letter.

  • Frank Vardon-Dove: This is the representative that I have been speaking to from Enterprise Rent-A-Car. He initially defended their position in cooperating with police. But then I pointed out that due dilligence (looking at the citation) would have protected me from this and it was probably a legal matter to violate my privacy by giving out my information whenever someone asked for it. Also I mentioned that Enterprise is the only rental company known for doing this. Most others don’t turn the drivers over, from what I’ve read. I sent him a copy of the citation to review. Eventually he called me and said that they have implemented a system in which they will verify the plates for future citations. Also he sent me a coupon for a free rental. I couldn’t be happier with his response. If they must involve themselves in this broken system, they should protect their innocent customers and take responsibility for mistakes that happen.
  • Richard D. Baranzini: This is who I initially communicated with from the Scottsdale Police Department. He was very helpful, but does not care about the trouble I went through and the implications of this mistake. I was basically required to go to court to fight evidence that pointed to somebody else. That a computer can cause this and that proper checks weren’t in place should raise red flags. He also told me that a long-standing freedom of information request is the reason private companies found out about the citation.
  • Robert Salcido: This is an employee of Redflex. He is obviously unapologetic and I believe he lied to me about an important detail of their system. He also incorrectly believes that his email signature bars me from repeating what he says. Unsurprisingly, given his stance on photocops, he has no understanding of the law and in reality a legally-binding contract cannot be imposed in an email signature. In any case, he said exactly what was expected of a company that makes money by bending the constitution. He just regurgitated the standard lines about how his hardworking employees (3 of them) somehow missed the mistake.
  • Bruce Kalin: This is Richard Baranzini’s boss at the Scottsdale PD. I sent him an email outlining how this was a hassle for me and how any amount of hassle was unacceptable when it was completely due to a failure on the parts of the Scottsdale PD and their contractors.
  • Bill A. Harper: His signature is printed on the citation. Because he certified the accuracy of the citation, it really should be him who I sue. However, I’m sure he has some immunity that protects him from the need to be ethical or legal. What he did seems to be clear cut fraud.

Why this matters

Laws have been broken with respect to my privacy and my right to confront my accuser. Since the information was seen by companies and possibly my insurance company, it is important that a person does the ticketing instead of a computer. The release of my information, strictly based on false information that brief due diligence would have spotted seems like libel. A few years later, I discovered that anybody doing a background check on me will find 20-something records related to getting this ticket cleared up. Though I was ultimately cleared, it does look bad to have so much activity on my record. Given that Scottsdale has a policy not to expunge records from photo tickets, this seems like punishment for standing up for myself. One day, if I am in Arizona long enough, I’d really like to look into suing the city to get this cleared up.

Regardless of what statistics exist (or don’t exist) pertaining to the lives saved by these systems, any system that would falsely accuse somebody from out of state in this way is completely unacceptable. If I hadn’t gotten my mail, I could have had a warrant out for me. I wasted a few hours and many cell-phone minutes on this, some while on vacation and some while I was preparing to move from Ohio to Iowa. This was a very busy part of my life without all of this. Expedience should never be a justification for trampling on rights like this. What was wrong with the old way of just having a cop give out tickets?

Arizona photocop Redflex