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.