The road to justice isn’t always easy. We all know that. We also know that the road to our office each morning can be treacherous. Late last summer I was cited by the California Highway Patrol for an alleged violation of Section 23123 of the California Vehicle Code. The officer claimed that I used my cell phone while driving without a hands-free device, consciously disregarding the safety of my fellow travelers on Interstate Five.
You can tell a lot about a place by the way the courthouse looks. In southern California there are magnificent old court buildings in Riverside and Orange County. They are architectural artifacts of a time when folks were proud of their public buildings and designed them to be part of comfortable plazas for everybody to enjoy. The local courthouse for my traffic trial is about as elegant as a trailer with a foundation. This bare-bones operation suggests that the locals don’t take much pride in their justice system, however it does seem to function reasonably well under the circumstances.
Now let’s all have a look inside Department A of the San Diego Superior Court. There’s nothing fancy about it, but it is a decent enough location for defendants to confront their accusers. One of the great things about being a licensed attorney is that I get to go in front of the bar and hand my business card to the bailiff. That means my case gets priority along with the other private counsel cases.
I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” This saying has interesting origins that go back more than a couple hundred years. Whatever. I’ve been a lawyer for almost thirty years and I’ve spent plenty of time cross-examining police officers and other witnesses. I know what I’m doing. I know how to argue cases with seemingly difficult facts. I showed up at court ready for action.
OK, so it is true that the CHP officer did see me driving southbound on Interstate 5 in my Chrysler Sebring. It is true that he saw me holding my cell phone in my right hand. It’s also true that he saw me speaking at the same time I was holding my cell phone and at the same time I was driving. All of this is true. I admit it. But it isn’t the whole story. I deny that I violated Section 23123 of the California Vehicle Code. I insist on my day in court. Fair enough.
What is my defense? These are pretty tough facts I’m admitting to at the start, aren’t they? Maybe so. Let’s look at the key language of the law. Section 23123 prohibits “using” a wireless telephone while driving unless it is hands-free. I brought a physical object with me to court to serve as a defense exhibit at trial: the hands-free device in my car at the time I received the citation. What happened was that I got a call while driving. I pushed the answer button and the hands-free device broke, pushing the phone into my hand and also disconnecting the call. I looked up to see the CHP officer gesturing for me to pull over and accept a nice yellow traffic citation.
You be the judge. Do these facts constitute “using” a cell phone while driving? Should I be convicted?
The judge called my case. I indicated I was ready for trial. The judge called the CHP officer’s name. Silence.
“This case is dismissed for want of timely prosecution,” announced the judge.
I walked out of court with my head held high, a winner at trial. Did I achieve justice? Who cares – I won!