Chuck Williams: On second thought ... why not exercise my legal rights?

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 20, 2014 

A good criminal defense attorney would probably call me an idiot.

Back in September, I started a column with this simple three-word sentence: “Guilty as charged.”

Today, I come before you to say I was not guilty — and here is how the story unfolded:

On Sept. 19, I was driving down Veterans Parkway — it was even my birthday. Somewhere around Ninth Street, a Columbus police motorcycle officer locked in behind me and turned on his blue lights.

My transgression?

Littering, he said. The first thought was, “No way. I didn’t throw anything out of the truck?” A Styrofoam cup blew out of the truck’s bed, he informed me.

The officer checked the bed of my truck for any other trash that could blow out. Nothing there.

He gave me a Uniform Traffic Citation for littering. Guilty as charged, though I never saw the cup blow out of the truck and was a little surprised to hear it was back there. That cup was going to cost me $134 and change.

In mid-November, I went to Recorder’s Court with the full intention of paying it and moving forward.

As I stood in that line, I got angry. Attorneys and law enforcement personnel used a variety of terms to describe my citation. My personal favorite was “chicken crap.”

I know in late September, I wrote I would not fight it. But I went from a letter-of-law to spirt-of-the-law guy standing in that line.

And it wasn’t just about the money.

Since I could not get in the officer’s head, I had no way of knowing why he wrote a ticket when at worst it should have been a warning. Heck, if he had told me, I would have turned around and gone back and picked the cup up. But I kept wondering why I got such a ticky-tacky call.

On Nov. 19, I showed up in Recorder’s Court ready to fight it. The officer was there, too. I didn’t take an attorney, but had talked to a couple in passing about the situation.

The advice was get it bound over to State Court, which meant entering a not-guilty plea. Judge Mary Buckner was on the bench. Her law office is next door to my home — and she put that potential conflict of interest on the record.

When I told her I wanted it to go to State Court — my legal right — she looked at me like I was nuts. But she sent the alleged littering infraction up the line. She could have required me to post a bond — that would have been about $20 more than the ticket. She let me go on my own recognizance.

I guess she knew where to find me if this whole deal went south.

It took about an hour to get the bond. I stood in a jail hallway with two high school students who had been cited for a fight.

Now that my case was in State Court, I was going to push it to the extreme. If a police officer can give me a ticket when there was obviously no criminal intent, I could make them work a little, too.

I made it known that I wanted a jury trial — my right under Georgia law. My reasoning was if they were going to put this in the court of the absurd, I was going to take the absurdity to the next level.

I know some of you think this offers a complete lack of respect for the legal system. I would argue all this was done with nothing but respect for the system, which legally allowed every step of this process.

My court date was last Friday.

I showed up at the appointed hour with my shirt tail tucked in, wearing shoes just as I was ordered in the summons. I showed up by myself, because at this point I was clearly on my own. The people who know and love me were not real sure where this was headed.

Neither was I.

It was over before it ever got started. The case had been placed on the dead docket, which means it is still a pending charge, but it is essentially over. That concerned me because that ticket could be an issue down the road.

One of the examples that was used by someone in the legal community was it would keep me from getting a gun permit from Probate Court.

Later in the day, State Court Judge Andy Prather dismissed the charge. Now, it is over.

Let’s be clear: The officer had a legal right to write that ticket. I respect that. But I had a legal right to challenge it.

God Bless America.

Perhaps the greatest truth was spoken by one of Prather’s court officials as I checked in on the 11th floor of the Government Center last Friday.

She told me the charge was dead docketed and I was free to go. Looking a gift horse in the mouth, I wanted to know why it was dead docketed.

“Because it was a lame case,” she responded.

Exactly.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.co

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