Saturday, March 15, 2014

Overzealous Policing & Prosecution

Part I:  Traffic Stop

Just after midnight on October 29, 2013, I traveled down Ross Avenue in a corridor of unincorporated west St. Louis County, Missouri, between Maryland Heights and Creve Coeur. I was only minutes from my residence, to which I was returning home after purchasing gas at a gas station on Lackland Avenue, off Page Avenue, in Maryland Heights; as I had done numerous times before, it was a round-trip of less than ten minutes not including the fill-up. After coming to a complete stop at the posted stop sign at the intersection of Ross Avenue and Merrick Drive, I proceeded on as usual down Ross Avenue toward Olive Boulevard. There was no one else on the road. Immediately, a St. Louis County police officer, who had not been travelling behind me nor was present at the intersection, approached with their emergency lights on. I was confused and disoriented by the sudden appearance of the police car, apparently entering the roadway from one of two subdivision entrances that comprised part of the intersection. At first thinking the police officer needed to get around me, I steered to the edge of the narrow roadway as best I could in order to give them room; realizing this was not the case, I turned onto the next available side street just past the intersection – less than a minute from my residence – with the police officer pulling in behind.

After some heated discussion concerning the matter, given my familiarity of and longstanding residence in the area, the police officer, Jasmine Schmidt, proceeded to cite me for allegedly failing to make a “complete stop at stop sign on stop line.” According to the citation, it was a violation of St. Louis County Ordinance 1206.030, “Intersections Where Stop Required,” which states, “Traffic on the highways or roadways in Schedule VI of this code shall stop before entering the intersection of the named highway or roadway described in Schedule VI.” Legal experts, particularly police officers who have discussed the matter with me, informally call this a “fishing expedition” citation used as a means to cite motorists for other, usually more serious, offenses. They suggested that Officer Schmidt clearly believed I was doing something else illegal, possibly drunk driving given the hour; when that proved false, she manufactured another, less serious traffic violation. When handing me the citation, she even noted on it the place and manner in which I could conveniently pay the fine. This immediately called into question another motive:  revenue generation.

In the preceding months, the typically docile and family-oriented suburban area had seen a noticeable increase in police presence. When asked about this circumstance in comparison to more crime-ridden sectors of the 2nd Precinct (Central County) – and in relation to the City of St. Louis’ recent “hot spot” patrolling – Captain Guy Means, the precinct commander, made no comment. Inquiries made to several other precincts, as well as to both former Police Chief Tom Fitch and the recently installed Jon Belmar, received a similar response. Then, on the evening of November 25, I was visiting a friend’s house in another subdivision off Ross Avenue not too far from my residence and the intersection in question. While on their patio, I noticed someone with a flashlight near my vehicle parked on the street; it was another St. Louis County police officer, allegedly “investigating” a “suspicious” car – despite the fact that my friend has no immediate neighbors, or at the very least ones who would have made such a call to the police. Coincidentally, this incident occurred after I started making inquiries to the police department and the municipal court in my capacity as a journalist.

I later learned that Officer Schmidt was only a few months out of the police academy, and that a similar looking vehicle as mine was connected to a string of burglaries in the area a few months earlier. No doubt, she, as a rookie cop, believed she had a potentially career-making collar; when that proved false, she clearly manufactured the alleged violation to cover her error – and certainly to maintain a healthy revenue-generating citation record. [In relation to this, yet another St. Louis County police officer later made a suspicious drive by in my neighborhood on March 10, slowing as they passed by my parked vehicle. As I was outside at the time, they pulled away when everything obviously checked out.]

Part II:  Court Appearance

Weighing my options of paying the fine or fighting the citation, I filed a motion to dismiss with the St. Louis County municipal court and followed-up with numerous, and unanswered, communications with the judge and prosecutors in an attempt to avoid court over the matter. When those avenues failed to make any progress – even receiving a stern warning from the prosecutor concerning ex parte – I appeared in court to dispute the charge on January 23, 2014. Again, I protested that per the posted stop sign at the intersection, and in accordance with the aforementioned ordinance, I had come to a complete stop at the posted stop sign before proceeding through the intersection. As I was not cited for failing to stop at the posted stop sign per the ordinance, this admittedly was not in question under the language of it; rather, I was cited for allegedly failing “to make complete stop at stop sign on stop line.” Further, as the stop line is set five feet beyond the stop sign as part of a crosswalk – and, as noted, I was not cited for failing to stop at the posted stop sign – I therefore could not have violated the ordinance under the language as written in the citation.

Thus, I argued that under the language of the ordinance and by all logic thereof, I in fact of and in accordance with the ordinance made a complete stop – at the posted stop sign – before proceeding through the intersection. Yet, Shujat Qalbani, the St. Louis County prosecutor, adamantly refused any discussion of dismissal (“not going to happen”) as if I had committed an unmitigated heinous crime – some which had just been heard by Judge Jess Ullom, appointed to the bench by the late St. Louis County Executive George “Buzz” Westfall in 1992. Judge Ullom came across as fair and understanding in his decisions, even if he failed to acknowledge any of my filed documents and communications. On the other hand, Mr. Qalbani – infamous for prosecuting, some would say mishandling, the case of beating victim Kenneth Gladney that made national headlines in 2011 – came across as overly zealous and smugly dramatic, as if, relegated to municipal court, needing to assert himself with petty municipal convictions and increased revenue coffers. He also was the third I had dealt with to resolve the issue before appearing in court. The two previous counselors apparently rotated to other courts at the last minute; the first one, Nakeyia Williams, finally returned phone calls made to her by me – the day after my appearance in court – being completely unhelpful in her script reading of procedure rather than addressing my case. When I questioned Mr. Qalbani’s ridiculous attitude in continuing to prosecute the citation, he threatened me with a contempt charge. He also tried to extort a $100 fine, plus court cost, for reducing it to a parking violation – far more than the $87.50 for the original offense.

A group of college-age “criminals” appearing ahead of me had been cited for trespassing in a St. Louis County park after dark; according to them, they had not been in the park, were doing nothing else illegal and simply were turning around not far from the entrance. More over, according to their story that Judge Ullom accepted, the police officers who stopped them had seen this occur. Yet, clearly due to the criminality of their offense, each had to pay a fine and court cost. Naturally, even in dismissed cases, there is always a court cost; in the case of St. Louis County, it comes to a steep $62.50. While globally reality demonstrates many brutal and oppressive police states, what happened to courteous warnings police in the United States used to issue for such innocuous infractions? In light of the rise in more serious crimes and 24/7 surveillance enforcement, can society in general – whether in this country or abroad – no longer abide such a modicum of civility that also would make it difficult to generate revenue from it? Why too is it that the same convenient privileges and courtesies given to lawyers – out-of-court pleas, pre-court conferences, backroom deals – are not extended to ordinary citizens representing themselves? Perhaps our legal system could be streamlined, more efficient and less wasteful.

Not reaching an amiable agreement with Mr. Qalbani over my citation, Judge Ullom set a trial date for March 13. As before, I immediately filed yet another updated and amended motion to dismiss, again based on the points already outlined. This after having to re-file my previous motion when it was “allegedly” never received by the court, despite documentation to the contrary, in addition to follow-up requests for a ruling from Judge Ullom on both motions that also went unanswered before the trial date – other than Mr. Qalbani’s overzealous and dismissive attitude toward the original one. All because of an alleged failure to come to a complete stop at a posted stop sign on the stop line on a deserted road after midnight, and at the expense of taxpayers to needlessly further pursue the prosecution.

Part III:  The Trial

Again receiving no response to my second motion to dismiss, as well as a follow-up motion for summary judgment, I arrived to court at 6:15 p.m. on March 13. Not as crowded as the previous time, there nonetheless was a sizable group of defendants. As before, the lawyers were allowed to have their cases heard first – from drug possession to concealed weapons – followed by a plethora of probation violators. At 8:30 p.m., only mine and another scheduled trial were left; given a choice by Judge Ullom, Mr. Qalbani selected the latter to start. I sat for another hour, waiting frustratingly patient as I listened to the other trial unfold – a fairly serious one involving alleged trespassing and inappropriate behavior on the part of the defendant.

At about 9:30 p.m., my trial finally commenced. First order of business, Judge Ullom introduced the case – erroneously stating the citation as “failure to stop at stop sign.” Again, Mr. Qalbani’s smug attitude presented itself as he made his opening remarks, repeating the judge’s error concerning the citation. When given the chance for an opening statement, I first asked for a ruling on my previously filed motions; amiably, Judge Ullom expressed his opinion of them as being points of fact rather than anything legal – and denied both. I simply made a note for possible appeal given that my motion to dismiss was based on the language and legal definitions of the ordinance rather than facts of the case, and that a motion for summary judgment is by definition an instrument for highlighting the facts of a case – whether based on legal points or not – in order to compel a judgment.

Nevertheless, I gave an opening statement that included emphasizing the citation in contradiction to what both had stated, and we proceeded to examine and cross-examine Officer Schmidt. Stating her observance of my alleged failure to stop at the stop sign – again, erroneously misstating the citation due to Mr. Qalbani’s leading, to which I objected and countered with her correct reiteration upon cross-examination – she also testified observing me decrease speed when approaching the intersection, could not observe my brake lights from her stationary vantage point, could not present any physical evidence corroborating her observance and could not read in the ordinance the particular phrase “complete stop at stop sign on stop line.” I also brought up the matter of the similar looking vehicle connected to the burglaries, to which, as I figured, Mr. Qalbani objected on relevancy; however, Judge Ullom, perhaps intrigued by this line of inquiry, allowed me to rephrase my questioning, to which Officer Schmidt, again as I figured, denied any knowledge of or influence from that open case in pulling me over. Naturally, Mr. Qalbani objected again to the questioning. The more tantalizing testimony, however, came when he had asked about her patrol assignment on the evening of October 29; she testified that she was there to enforce the stop signs – an answer that sounded more month-end revenue grab than public safety.

As such, with the case basically a police officer’s word against a citizen’s, Judge Ullom, almost reluctantly it seemed, found in favor of the prosecution with a guilty verdict. Despite a confidently and thoroughly prepared defense meant to raise doubt, if not the benefit of doubt on the side of my innocence, the lateness of the evening had drained my vigor and confounded my deliberation to an extent that certainly hindered presenting a more convincing performance.

Mine is not a unique story. Attend any municipal court in any city or municipality to witness similar strong-arm tactics, bizarre situations and unfathomable citations that demonstrate an increasingly common practice neither to depose such cases in a rationally efficient manner nor to dismiss them outright where common sense should prevail. Especially as many like the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County continue to face budget concerns; what is easier than collecting from a tried and true revenue stream like unsuspecting motorists, many who will just pay the fine? In my case, it was demonstratively yet another example of a “fishing expedition” citation aimed at that purpose, and nothing less than a pretext – much like checkpoints for everything from seatbelt use, insurance verification and driving under the influence – to investigate a false suspicion of illegal activity notwithstanding Officer Schmidt’s testimony to the contrary. While my citation may seem a petty matter to fight in court in relation to other cases I witnessed, it carries with it a “court cost”-heavy fine and two points on my otherwise clean driving record. Even more, though, it is another example of a domestic trend toward a jackbooted police state that must be stopped by citizens for citizens – because where does it end if given even the slightest opportunity?

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©2014 Steve Sagarra

1 comment:

  1. You should have asked for a jury trial. Because we are living in a police state, I use an old IPhone 4 mounted as a dashcam any time I am behind the wheel. It is recording every second and continues to record especially during police encounters. My primary cell phone is used as a backup in case the officer demands I exit my vehicle.