Famous last words: 'I'll see you in court'

Steve Hirano, Editor
Posted on November 1, 2000

I’ve had my day in court. Even though I won my case, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. The California Highway Patrol officer who ticketed me for an unsafe lane change glowered at me as we left traffic court. I could almost hear him thinking, “Puh-leeze, just let me catch you once more on my freeway. Yes, try me again someday sonny. We’ll see who walks out smiling.” Yes, I was smiling, but it was a smile of relief not celebration. You’re risking plenty when you challenge a traffic ticket. If you lose, not only do you have to pay the fine, but it also goes on your record, which will not please your auto insurer. The safer route, of course, is to opt for traffic school, but that means you’ve got to admit guilt.

Guilty as charged?
And I wasn’t about to do that. The officer claimed that I made an unsafe lane change, when, in fact, the motorist who I allegedly cut off was the culprit. He unexpectedly darted into the lane that I was moving into, making it appear that I had cut him off. After pulling me over, the officer informed me that he was also citing me for not wearing my seat belt. I tried to explain that the lane change was perfectly acceptable on my part and that I had been wearing my belt. “Why’d you take it off?” he asked, almost derisively. I told him that I had my wallet in my back pocket and took off the seat belt to make it easier to pull out. He was having none of it, on either front. Throughout this encounter, as cars hurtled down the 91 Freeway, the officer was sullen, if not rude. In fact, he abruptly started walking back to his motorcycle as I was asking a final question about the ticket. My parting words to him, shouted in the din: “I’ll see you in court.” Which I did, unfortunately. I was hoping he had better things to do. “I’ll see you in court” was a regrettable remark. In fact, he probably put a bold asterisk next to the date in his dayrunner. When my case was called, I was allowed to question the officer. I asked him how well he remembered the now months-old incident. Not well, apparently. In fact, he elicited a chuckle from the judge by offering that he couldn’t remember what he had eaten for breakfast the day before. I told him that I recalled the incident like it had occurred that morning. Later, I unveiled some charts that illustrated a sequence of events that explained how it could have appeared that I had cut off the other motorist when in fact we both had merged into the same lane simultaneously, one from the right and one from the left. I also had a former business partner testify that he had never seen me drive without wearing my seat belt, not in dozens of shared trips. In his ruling, the judge said he found both parties to be credible witnesses, but conceded that my charts explained how the patrolman might have erred in his judgment. He cleared me of both violations.

So what’s my point?
Even if you’re a careful and experienced motorist (or operator of school buses), you’re not immune from accusation, whether it’s a traffic ticket or a civil lawsuit. Thus you need to be prepared for that eventuality. Yes, you need to expect the unexpected. To that end, we interviewed several expert witnesses in school bus-related cases for their discerning advice on how to minimize your risks of being found negligent in court (See feature story titled “Presumed Guilty?”). The bottom line is that taking the precautions mentioned in the article will reduce your chances of being successfully sued and, more importantly, help to prevent the types of incidents that lead to lawsuits. As we all know, the best way to avoid losing a lawsuit is to avoid being sued.

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