Posted by Chris Widuta.
Did you ever stop to notice how busy life can be? Either you’re on your way to your parents, maybe going to class that meets twice a week during rush hour, or off to the gym to see your friends. Life got busy really quickly for me and I am still managing to handle the responsibilities that come with it, which includes bills, an apartment, a relationship, and most importantly my future.
On a Wednesday at nine o’clock in the morning, I was headed down the highway doing a steady 20-mile per hour in light traffic. I was headed to meet with my college professor to discuss statistics before the final examination. The entire drive was very smooth with no one cutting me off. At the same time, I thought the slow moving traffic would make for a great time to multitask. Isn’t it true that more and more people getting more done by doing two things at the same time? Walking and talking is more than simply talking, obviously. For me, that Wednesday morning I was working with my television provider to opt-out of the TV service I thought I didn’t need. Cable is expensive and those types of calls are stages of perpetual holds. I was multitasking.
I was just a few feet away from my exit, blinker on, driving with both hands on the wheel, using my cell phone by holding it with my shoulder. The state trooper was already conducting his business that morning in the emergency lane, when he turned and saw me, communicating. I thought nothing of it as I knew I was within the law. I continued to proceed off my exit, slowly accelerating since traffic was clearing up and all of a sudden, red and blue lights jumped right into my rear-view mirror. This trooper was able to do two things at once, too! The amount of time it took him to leave that scene and open another had to be less than 30 seconds, and quite frankly I was impressed.
He pulled me over and asked for all the necessary documents. I always ask why I was pulled over, because I know that by most tickets are written by the discretion of the officer. He stated that I was on my phone and quite frankly I agreed. I was on my phone, and I stated to him that I was not holding it in my hand. I stated that I had both hands on the wheel, and I asked the officer if he saw me holding the wheel with both hands, at the 10 and 2 position. I believed that if he was able to see my head and phone, he must have been able to see both hands, which would be unmistakable, being about chin level from his vantage point.
At this point, the officer started to look like a State Trooper. He had the hat and was very serious, more serious than a local police officer. I knew that he had to be in a bit of a hurry when he gave me my insurance and registration back immediately and held my license. The trooper then stated that it didn’t matter how I was holding the phone, but the fact that I was on my phone was worthy of a ticket and illegal. I didn’t make a fuss of it and proceeded to my stats lesson.
It took me only a few minutes to research the most recent statue description for 39:4-97.3, or “Operation of a motor vehicle while using cell phone.” The statue number was right on the ticket, and a quick Google search pulled up some results. I proceeded to the 215th Legislature because that lead to the most recent additions to the law. I know how important it is to know current law rather than outdated information from the Internet. After reading through the entire statute, I came up for air and formed a judgment. The statute clearly stated in Article 2 Section 1: “The use of wireless telephone . . . device by an operator of a moving vehicle on a public road or highway shall be unlawful except when the telephone is hands-free wireless telephone or the electronic communication device is used hands-free.” That line right there gave me great hope that I was within the law, and hope that my day in court I could prove that. I was mentally preparing for a trial, pro se.
My first appearance in Municipal Court came 11 days later. Due to the fact that the situation was minor, and really only a monetary fine, I knew that the “ball was in my court.” You see, most municipal courts just love these kinds of evenings. People who are “money right and time poor” just plead guilty, pay the fine, and go on with life. The municipal court makes hundreds of thousands of dollars on these court nights, especially since the average fine that night was around $290 a person. These fines are like a tax on a poor decision.
This situation is the exact opposite. I am a student with a part time job, 15 credits, and financially responsible, who has some extra time to save some money. The fine was $200, a pretty large amount, and something I couldn’t lose. I was charged to go in with the prosecutor and plead my case. The first step I took was to sit down with the prosecutor and told him I plead, not guilty. He told me that by pleading not guilty I would request to have a trial, acting pro se. The prosecutor aggressively asked me if I was ready for “trial” as if it was a big and scary event. Of course, I knew this meant a trial so I was prepared. I also told him that I would be sending an “order” for discovery, which was my Constitutional right. He repeated what I said in a joking manner as if I was doing something wrong, but I confirmed that was what I wanted and thanked him for his time. I proceeded to sit down in the court room, second row from the font. I chose the second row because I wanted the judge to see my face and I wanted to be in the right position to hear the lawyers around me and the cases being presented that night. It was important to hear everything that was said because I was going to eventually head to the bench.
I took notes, studied, and remembered what the judge and prosecutor said for over 4 hours before I had the chance to speak. They called my case. The judge read the statute, told me the fine, and asked how I plead. After a moment or two of silence, I clearly stated “not guilty.” I may have been trembling a little on the inside, but it was important that he heard no wavering in my voice. The judge stated that I should prepare for a trial, but included a certain lead that gave me great hopes; the judge said, “If that phone was in your hand, you’re breaking the law.” I thanked him, and listened to him say that I would be getting a trial date. I walked out of the court room almost 5 hours later.
I quickly wrote up an request for the prosecutor. This official letter included my summons number, the date and who I was. In the order, I reminded him that it was my constitutional right for this discovery. I asked for all recordations of the interaction, including but not limited to, officers notes, audio, and dash cam video.
Preparing for the case was a matter of determining what facts were going to be most important to getting the charges dismissed. It was imperative that I used the officer’s comments against statute and the judge’s interpretation of the law. I truly believed that I was within the law, so it was relatively easy to find good reasons to throw this charge out. It was also clear to me that I would be making decisions based on political decisions; to be exact, I realized that the courthouse was making a bet that the State Trooper would be a witness and testify, but more on that later.
Weeks went by and a discovery packet was never sent. It was the day before the trial date and I called the courthouse to speak with the court clerk. I had told her I have not received discovery and asked for a new date. She said that she could not give one and trial will still go on tomorrow. This was actually good news. Because it is my Constitutional right to have discovery, I knew that the court would not judge against me, and at this point, the worst that could happen would be a new trial date. I could live with that.
I appeared to the court house dressed well. I went to the prosecutor’s office to speak with him, mainly on the fact that I have not received discovery. He was surprised to hear that I sent an request and he never received it. I reminded him of his words and what address to use. He also included a very important hint of what was to come. The prosecutor told me that the witness, the trooper, was not at the trial. This means that the only witness that the State has did not show up! I knew my rights under the Confrontation Clause of the 6th Amendment that, “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witness against him.” These new facts greatly swayed my emotions to believe that I had a chance to get this dismissed that night. I was excited to sit in the court room.
Surrounded by lawyers, I was attentive and engaged. Every poor soul that stood up there took the charge and paid the fine. I prepared and thought of a response for what I would say for every one of the questions that the judge asked. Many other people had trials that day, and most if not all led the accused to lose their case. I did not give up hope, as I knew I had a different tactic. Instead of arguing the law, I planned to argue why the rules of the court should sway the judge to dismiss this case. They called my name and I felt much more confident this time around. All the possible scenarios played through my head already and I was ready.
The judge read the charge as I laid my papers on the table. Before I looked up, the judge quickly and effortlessly offered to cut the fine in half. This was completely arguable, I thought to myself. I said was that I was not granted my Constitutional right because I did not receive discovery. Before he said anything, I handed the officer a copy of the letter I sent to the prosecutor. He read it and asked a few questions about what I was requesting. The judge specifically asked how I knew that the interaction with the officer was recorded. Quite frankly, I assumed that it was recorded, I didn’t know for a fact, but I didn’t let him know that. I answered his question by referring to the fact that this was a state trooper and I believed the State installed video long ago, and how important it is to have video for more important interactions. He proceeded to ask about recordations, which I also requested.
The prosecutor followed up with a statement that the officer, who was their sole witness, was not present. He asked if it would be okay to reschedule for another date. I quickly returned his comment by asking for a dismissal. The judge rebutted with some guilt tripping remarks, including that ever since 9/11, State Troopers are very busy, and that certain arrangements for special occasions are required. I wasn’t going to fall for this guilt trip. It is important for the witness to be present at any trial, especially this one. I responded with the fact that this was a trial and asked if a trial is important enough to request their witness to be present. I also stated that he should have been subpoenaed for the trial. The judge did not respond. I asked to kindly accept my motion for a dismissal.
After what seemed to be an eternity, the judge looked up and said, “Case dismissed.” His words were truly the most relieving and gratifying two words I could have possibly heard. All of the hard work and time I put in to this exercise, not only saved me the $200 fine, but I confirmed to myself that I could stand up to my opponents and be victorious. The best part of this was, I didn’t even have to argue the law, I used the law in my favor and the judge nor could the prosecutor do anything to stop me.
Chris is a business administration major with a concentration in management of information technology at Montclair State University, Class of 2016.