Corey’s Stories — All Charges Dropped
A few months ago I was riding my bicycle along 6th Avenue, a busy 6 lane, one-way road, with the flow of traffic on a clear sunny day. I had packed my lunch and was heading to the office of Elite Couriers to refuel for the rest of the day’s activities. In the block before the intersection where I needed to make a right turn was a police car parked in the far right lane. In front of it was a food delivery guy. Traffic was snarled trying to get around the obstacle. In addition there were the gawkers who slow traffic further, curious to see why their forward progress was delayed.
As I attempted to ride around the cluster, a police officer jumped from the passenger side of the vehicle and ordered me to stop. He asked me for my ID. I asked him why. He told me because I was not using the bike lane on the other side of the road. I told him that I was making a right turn at the next intersection. He then made me wait in front of his patrol car as he checked my ID. It was a humiliating and infuriating experience. The police officer snagged another food delivery guy for the same reason as I waited.
I stood in front of the patrol car, my bike on the ground, arms folded. My blood was boiling. A few friends rolled by on their bikes, attempting to stop to see if I was OK. I vigorously waved them on. If the NYPD would cite me for something as trivial as not riding in the bike lane, I was certain they would cite them as well. Somewhere in the warped minds of HQ, it would be viewed as an effective sting against outlaw cyclists.
The police officer got out of the car, handing me my ticket last. I let him know that the law allows me to ride out of the bike lane if I am preparing to make a turn. His response as he handed me the ticket: “Tell it to the judge.”
On the pink ticket, a summons, there is a line indicating when the accused should appear in court. The line on my summons was blank. I was hoping to receive a letter in the mail saying that the matter would be dismissed. After two weeks, I received nothing. There are many cyclists in New York that ignore these minor tickets because they are deemed trivial. They fail to understand that they become warrants. If by some chance they meet another law enforcement agent in the future in New York City, they will be detained. I do not want that possibility dangling over my head. A month after being cited, I went to the Criminal Court to clear my name. (Writing that last sentence was painful, just the very notion of going to CRIMINAL court because I got caught making a right turn on a bike disgusts me.)
New York State Courts has a huge room with a roped-off maze to enable a long line to form. There are a hundred or so people waiting to check in for various violations and misdemeanors. Some cases are dismissed, others require a court room appearance. When I approached the window, I handed the clerk my ID and the summons filled out with a NOT GUILTY plea checked. I was handed a different piece of paper and directed to go to a court room down the hall. (This was all happening on a normal work day meaning that the more time I spent in court, the less time I spent at my paying job.)
I sat in the front row of the benches for the accused in the court room. I was eager to settle the matter and be on my way. Lingering in a dingy court room, listening to the variety of inappropriate behaviors witnessed and cited by the police, while an integral part of the US Constitutional right to a speedy and public trial, was not how I wanted to spend my day. I sat in the court room for several hours hearing case after case being called. The bailiff would call the accused forward, the judge would browse the information on the citations and say how much the fine was for the offense. The accused would either pay the relatively small fee and plead guilty or plead not guilty and return for a trial with the citing officer.
New York has a very high cost of living. As such, everyone needs to make lots of money to exist. Many people, even though innocent, plead guilty rather than waste more time returning to court. Frivolous tickets are a travesty of justice and a waste of both government and citizens’ resources.
I listened to all the cases for the morning. I was one of the last cases called. It was only after waiting for so long that I was told my case was scheduled the following month. I was early. The judge said my fine was to be $75. The public defender, who knew nothing about my case, asked if I was going to pay it. I looked her in the eye and boldly said no. She told me that I would have to come back for a trial as if it were going to be a more severe punishment. I told her that I was not guilty and that I could show her on my iphone the statute proving my innocence. I asked if they could dismiss the case. I was told the citing officer needed to be present. Great. Five hours wasted. No resolution. Still a suspected criminal.
On the official day of the court case, I arrived at 346 Broadway at 9am. I had a few tense words with security when they collected my bike pump, tools and helmet. They have sticker pairs where they keep your stuff, putting one sticker on your things and hand you the matching one for retrieval later. I told them not to put stickers on my helmet, the dude shrugged and did so anyway. I went to the appointed court room and handed my paper to the bailiff. (It was disturbing that I have been to Criminal Court for bicycle offenses enough that his face was familiar.) I took my seat on the first of the benches. I was hoping to be finished quickly. I sat as other people entered the court room. I kept an eye on the clock, hoping I would not have to waste another day sitting in court. There was a quiet tension in the air. Construction across the street from the windows made the occasional thundering boom as if we were on the edge of a war zone.
The bailiff stood at the front of the court and said amid all of the murmuring: Corey Hilliard. The noise diminished as he glared around the courtroom. He loudly said: RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU’RE HERE! The woman sitting next to me and dozens of other nervous people around the courtroom all raised their hands. I laughed. He then said after getting everyone’s attention for people to raise their hands after their name was called. He called my name again. This time I was the only one to raise my hand. I was directed to talk to the public defender in the hallway.
The woman introduced herself and asked about the case. She showed me the ticket. I told her it looked different. Revised. I remember some information that was on the pink ticket, a duplicate of the one she was supposed to be viewing, missing. I told her everything that happened. I also gave her a printed copy of the exact statute that would exonerate me. She was impressed with my “legal research.” She kept the paper and we went back into the court room.
I waited as the first few cases were heard. This judge was in a good mood or just a very awesome guy from the old school approaching retirement. Many of the NY State judges are stern individuals that believe their job is to dish out punishment to the masses brought before them. One case was for public urination. The judge questioned the man about the affair that occured at 3 am. He asked if he had been drinking. The man replied yes. The judge told him to let it out before heading out of the house. The judge joked to the bailiffs as the man left the court room that “The kidneys break down after midnight.” Another case was of a young woman caught for public drinking. She was asked what what was her life story. She was a college student, majoring in criminology. The judge asked if she could find criminals. He said, “Look around do you see any criminals here? To me they look like citizens that got caught doing nothing.”
Officer Perez arrived. He sat in the bench closest to the front of the court room near the judge. I burned holes in the back of his head with my eyes for wasting my time. I watched as he was the only police officer in the court room, a rarity for low level citations. The bailiff called out for a Carlos Perez. It was a defendant in a case. Officer Perez sat back down. As we waited I noticed his feet shaking. He was nervous, uncertain. Good. This was going to be a battle of wills and I intended to win.
The public defender asked to speak outside once more. She asked more in depth questions about me. Have I been convicted of any crimes? No. Was I a messenger? I paused for a moment. New York City has been on an unofficial quest to legislate everything cycling related specifically messengers. Most of this legislation is all punitive in nature. Admission of my profession could be detrimental to my case. I told her that I was formerly a messenger. (Technically correct as I no longer operate Vespid Couriers in Philadelphia.) I told her that I was a free lance writer. (You are reading this right now…) She told me that the case would probably go well as the judge was happy-go-lucky and most other judges like to make everyone guilty. We returned again to the courtroom to hear more cases. She spoke to me once more before I was called. She told me that the maximum fine for my charge would be $270. I shrugged my shoulders. I had no intention of paying a cent. I was pissed and was planning to file a complaint immediately after the case. It had to be dismissed first.
My turn to have my case heard finally came. Officer Perez and I were called forward, me on the left, him on the right. Perez stated his badge number and precinct. I, with pen and paper in hand, wrote all of that down. The public defender and bailiffs were intrigued by my note taking. The judge asked what happened. Perez said in official jargon told the judge that I was heading northbound on 6th Avenue, traveling on the eastern side of the roadway. The bike lane, on the western side of the roadway, was free and clear of obstacles and debris. The judge then asked me what happened. I told him I was on the right side of the street, about to make a right turn when I got stopped and that the bike lane was on the left side of the street. I continued that it would be counterintuitive to try to make a right turn from the far left side of the street. The judge was about to make a ruling, because on the surface it would have appeared as though the officer was correct. The public defender then spoke with the sheet of paper in her hand: “Your honor, the law says…” The judge stopped her. “You are going to read me the law? You expect me to read that? What is that, single spaced?” He ranted. “Bloomberg (the mayor) ought to ride a bike to work every day…, a girl’s bike.” He mumbled something under his breath. Then said, “ACD.” I looked to the public defender. She told me I was free to go. Perez had already turned and was out the door of the court room. I went out after hoping to make eye contact. Hoping to remind him about the tell-it-to-the-judge comment. But he was quickly walking out the police officer doors to the courthouse. I mumbled to myself “toodles,” knowing the process of filing a complaint would soon follow.
I picked up my belongings from the front of the courthouse and went out to the sunny day. Work on the bike was calling. I went forward nervous that at any moment I could be stopped and cited for the slightest of infractions. I would have to be mindful about every action on the bike and who was watching. A few deliveries into the day I figured out the legal acronym for ACD: ALL CHARGES DROPPED