War of words

I suppose it was a win-win situation. The police officer got to yell at somebody and I got to my destination sooner. But more importantly it was a warning about how police testify.

As a favor to police unions Massachusetts does not follow national standards for temporary traffic control. When the bucket truck comes in to work on a pole the company has to hire police to stand around and watch. There are no detour signs, no flagger with a stick, just a few city employees standing around collecting overtime.

Nobody was directing traffic. There were no signs. There was an empty lane apparently reserved for traffic in my direction so I went around the truck and took it.

I remember a similar ambiguous situation during a construction project in Cambridge. The road was divided into three single lanes, each with a Jersey barrier on each side. Obviously the right lane goes this way and the left lane goes that way. There was no indication which way traffic was supposed to go in the middle lane. I saw confused drivers make both choices.

This time the alternate route is not the adjacent lane but a three mile detour. No detour signs, no hand signals, so go. The last officer of the overtime squad runs out to intercept me and starts yelling. I tell him I thought I was supposed to go around the truck. Mr. Roid Rage blows up. He points at a distant uniform and screams “You’re telling me he told you to go around! Are you calling him a liar!”

This is one reason why the Massachusetts Supreme Court requires police interviews with suspects to be recorded. I did not say any police officer told me to do anything. All I said was I thought I was supposed to do something. But if I had gotten a ticket he would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that I lied about being directed. If you try to get clever when the officer asks how fast you were going he’s going to swear that you confessed. Who is going to say otherwise?

This is also why most states prohibit jury trials in traffic cases. While an occasional magistrate will disapprove of a specific speed trap, they aren’t generally suspicious of police testimony. One defendant I know regretted not bringing his blind passenger to trial as a witness. Even a blind man could see the officer was lying. Another guy told me how the magistrate commiserated with the officer about awful lying drivers like him.

There’s another reason we have recorded interviews here, beyond correcting the occasional lapse of memory or outright lie. One police station camera recorded an officer threatening to kill two young suspects or plant drugs on them. The officer kept his job. Maybe the chief and union were sympathetic because he didn’t realize the cell had a working camera. He is currently suspended only because he was indicted by federal prosecutors after the video became public. It’s illegal to carry a gun while facing felony charges.

When somebody confesses after interrogation, don’t believe the confession if you can’t listen to a full recording including all the threats made to extract the confession.

And if there’s no dashcam or body camera video to back up the police account of a public encounter, ask yourself why not.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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3 Responses to “War of words”

  1. Mikhael says:

    Reminds me of a ticket I fought in Somerville District Court. In the hearing, the magistrate and police officer were seated next to each other on one side of a table across from me. Talk about undermining the appearance of impartiality. Imagine if in any other type of court proceeding you walked up to the bar and the judge and prosecutor were sitting next to each other on the bench?

    • John Carr says:

      A few years after the non-criminal traffic court was created the appeals court ruled that there was no right to a fair trial at a magistrate hearing. Your only remedy was to appeal to a real judge. Which now has a $50 fee, but didn’t when the case was decided 30 years ago. Then it was only a waste of your time. Now your only remedy if you don’t get a fair trial for $25 is to hope for a fair trial for $50.

      • Mikhael says:

        Yeah, Reading v Murray affirming that CMVI defendants are second-class citizens. Twisted logic of “well since we were so nice to pass a law excluding going to jail as a possible penalty for a speeding ticket, you shouldn’t complain when we take away all your due process hearing rights”. Like going to jail should have ever been a possible penalty for a speeding ticket.