This morning I appeared at Ayer District Court in the main courtroom for the hearing before a judge on my citation, issued in the Town of Groton, for speeding 51 in a 30mph zone. I arrived when the court opened at 8:30, and was the first one to enter the courtroom, which gave me a bit of time to try to calm my nerves (I’m no public speaker!). I was attired in a conservative skirt and blazer. The hearing was scheduled for 9, but the court didn’t start session until nearly 20 past the hour.

Four cases were called before mine, which were educational for me. (With my work schedule, I’d not had the time to go observe the court in action, so I was very nervous about this hearing.) In the first two, the officer did not appear and the defendants were determined “not responsible.”

The next two were more interesting to me, as the officers did appear. In one case, against State Police, the defendant was a young man with a heavy accent who conducted himself reasonably well and asked some specific questions which caused the officer to “not recall” some details about the traffic patterns at the time of the citation. Not responsible.

But the next one was even more interesting. The defendant seemed completely unprepared to question the officer at all. He’d apparently already lost in the Concord jurisdiction, the citations were for speeding and other things about lane changes and weaving in and out of traffic. The officer testified that he didn’t charge him with driving to endanger, because as one of very few on the bomb squad, he didn’t have time to make a lot of these court appearances, so he only writes citations for the worst offenses. The judge asked the defendant whether he wanted to question the officer and/or speak to her. He did not question the officer and then said all the wrong things to the judge about how fast he might have been going (according to what I have seen on your website). He was judged ‘Responsible’ and ordered to pay the fine.

I was called next. My hopes for instant dismissal for no witness were dashed when the officer did appear, but I had developed a layered defense and simply progressed to layer two, asking what the procedure was for handling a problem with the Public Information Law relative to obtaining the information about my citation I’d requested.

The judge asked me to explain, so I introduced my letter, along with the certified mail receipt of its delivery, and listed the items I requested. (These items were exactly as listed on your website.) The officer interjected to present the letter his Chief had sent to me and that too was introduced into evidence, after the Judge asked if I was familiar with it, which I was. In this letter, the Chief said he wouldn’t comply with my request. And then the letter said there were two radar guns in use and they sent calibration certificates from August and November 2000 for THREE radar guns. The judge asked why I wanted the items beyond those and I highlighted that the officer would be able to use the back of the ticket as evidence against me, that the logbook and the other information would support me to prepare my case, because I am sure the radar speed was not mine or incorrect, but I can’t prepare adequately without that information.

The judge asked the officer about the logbook to which he replied they don’t use logbooks. About the info on the back of the ticket, she asked him to hand it to me for review. I noted that it said “operator admits to speeding” and “51 in 30 zone.” It was introduced as evidence. She said the officer would testify to his experience, to his training and use of the equipment and that I could question him afterwards. Then she asked him to tell about the citation. He made the usual canned statement about observing me speeding and then confirming with radar.

She asked him how long he’d been an officer, which was about 2 years. When given the opportunity to question him, I had planned to begin questioning him first on the issue of distance for which he’d observed my speed and when he had then confirmed with the radar, but I’d misplaced your cheat chart of speed/distance conversions (Quarter mile is how many feet? How many tenths? In how many seconds?) and got a little bit flustered. Had I been prepared better, I could have blown him out of the water with this, because he said he observed me for a quarter mile. The visible distance at best was 900 feet (I estimated this the other day using 30mph cruise control and a stop watch), but he was hidden so far back from the road and there are so many obstructions (a heavy line of pine trees and brush) that it would not be possible to watch one vehicle continuously along that distance.

However, having become flustered about the measurement, and being afraid I’d get tangled in that, I simply introduced my pictures of the scene, and asked the officer how far from the edge of the road he was, on the perpendicular side street. He said 5 to 10 feet, and I proved with my pictures that from 5 or 10 feet back, you can’t see all the way down the road and from further back you can see glimpses of the road that far back, but not a continuous view. In one of my pictures, a full size pickup truck is “visible” but you have to know it’s there to see it. I had annotated my pictures with captions and pointers, and I made mention of it. I then asked him to tell the part of his testimony about our conversation. He said that he’d asked, “Do you know why I stopped you?” and that I’d admitted to speeding. I looked straight at the judge, and said “Your Honor, he asked me if I knew how fast I was going and I answered ‘No.’ But I was travelling alone, so I’m not certain how to address this, in terms it being his word against mine with no witness to corroborate. And, your Honor, I still have concerns about the public information request, because the attached receipt indicates that the Police Department signed for it on December 12, and they did not respond with their letter of refusal to comply until January 8. That is well beyond the 10 day requirement of the law covering public information requests.” With a smile, she coached me, asking what law was that and I supplied the chapter and section and read the relevant sentence. (Chapter 66: Section 10, paragraph (b): “A custodian of a public record shall, within ten days following receipt of a request for inspection or copy of a public record, comply with such request.”)

I was slightly unsure as to whether to launch into a line of questioning to force him to admit he did not do traffic history, but being nervous had me too flustered to begin asking questions on his use of radar and training on it. She asked me if I had any further questions for him, or any thing else I wanted to say to her, and not to be nervous, take my time. I took a breath, decided I likely had them on enough to show they didn’t prove their case without losing my cool and ended by saying, “I travel that road every single day, both directions on my hour and a half commute from NH. I go that way, rather than the highway, because I don’t like highway speeds. I’m a careful and attentive driver. A private pilot friend of mine taught me to do a horizon and instrument scan in the airplane and I apply that same technique in the car. When I see a speed limit sign, I glance at my speedometer and adjust if necessary. I had passed a 30 mph sign just before I reached the earliest point he could have glimpsed my vehicle. When I got closer to his location, a glint in my peripheral vision made me think a vehicle was approaching out of that road, which would enter my road from the left. This caused me to look more closely as I came abreast of the end of that road, at which point I determined that it was a cruiser, well back from the end of the road. When he pulled me over, he asked me if I knew how fast I was going and I answered No. I had not looked at my speedometer when I saw him, I had evaluated what evasive action I might need to take if in fact a car was coming out of that road.” And at that, I sat down.

She asked the officer if he frequently does enforcement in that location and he affirmed as much. She then said to me, “I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, and holding you not responsible. Be careful, because if you do exceed the limit there, he’ll stop you again.”

Funny thing is, I have been travelling that road every day for 3 years and have never seen an enforcement action there before or since! I have a feeling that she gave me the benefit of the doubt, because of the screwup on the public record request. I have no doubt that the Chief looked at the back of the ticket and decided to take the chance that I’d not know what to do with his refusal. And the newbie officer probably learned a lot about what he needs to do if he’s going to do an enforcement there again to make it stick.

Thank you again, for your assistance!

Paula B.