A Crime Victim Learns about the Justice System

I had an interesting experience lasting from May 31, 1999 through January 6, 2000. I was the victim of a reasonably well-planned crime which included framing me for a civil violation which I did not commit. This was a $35 ticket, plus probably $100 more a year for five years on my insurance. The perpetrators had nothing against me personally; this was necessary for them to accomplish their goals of insurance fraud. I learned some interesting things about insurance fraud and the justice system as a result of this experience.

Briefly, the other driver cut me off in a rotary so that a collision was unavoidable, and then had his friends travelling in a separate car claim that the accident occurred as I entered the rotary, which would make it my fault. There was some less-than-stellar police work in this case. In fact, it was so bad that upon seeing the police report it occurred to me that there could even be some level of collusion or cooperation between the police and the criminals. Of course, we're really not talking about the Brinks Robbery here, and a little sloppiness wouldn't be surprising, but you make up your own mind as you read. I personally haven't made up my own; when I walked out of the Concord District Court on January 6, I placed the odds at about 50%. This is a lot more than a reasonable doubt, so we aren't convicting anyone here.

Right after the accident I wrote up a fairly detailed account of the accident as a record of everything that had happened both to attempt to stop the insurance fraud and for my defense. After that I talked to an officer at the same police station as the responding officer, which could have been a mistake if in fact there was some kind of collusion, but that was the farthest thing from my mind at the time. He gave me the good advice to talk to my insurance adjuster at Arbella, who was very helpful over the next seven months.

I both dictated and faxed my account to Arbella on June 3. This was essentially the first part of the updated story which I took to my hearing before the Magistrate, described (and linked) below. I think it describes some pretty interesting events; I never forget the ancient Chinese curse ``May you live in interesting times.''

I contested the ticket, and waited for the police report and a court date. I waited, and waited. For example, on September 17 I talked to my claims adjuster who said that RMV was telling him the same thing as me: there was no police report yet. Central to my case was the identity of the so-called witnesses. I felt that if the witnesses were from the vicinity of South Boston (as were the driver and passenger in the car I hit), that would clinch my case. Unfortunately I needed the police report to determine that.

The claims adjuster also told me that the woman claiming injury claimed soft tissue injury, and had a prior back problem. Arbella has told her lawyer that they do not feel that they are responsible, and they haven't paid anything.

On October 14 I got a summons to a hearing before the Magistrate. I requested the police report from RMV ($10), and got it quickly. This was my biggest disappointment in the whole process. It had no witnesses listed at all, suggesting that both drivers had agreed on the basics of the collision, or possibly that the officer himself had witnessed it! Further problems included estimated damage to my car of $1000+, which might nicely support a big ``pain and suffering'' claim but was at odds with my photograph of my car looking perfectly fine and my insurance estimate showing damage of $107 to replace a slightly dented rubber bumper pad! This was the first time at which I wondered it the police were on my side or their side.

I went to the hearing on November 4, armed with an updated version of my story and a plan to read it as my defense. I met the Magistrate and a police woman representing the state police in general rather than in specific. The Magistrate cut off my chronology pretty early on, having no interest in insurance fraud or the motives of the other driver. The state police woman said that even from my accident report it looked like I was guilty!

This was a bit of a psychological setback, but nothing I haven't experienced before. Sometimes you just don't have the right briefing for your audience. At work, you just figure out exactly what they want, go back to the drawing board, rework your viewgraphs, and try again. So that's what I did. I appealed the Magistrate's decision, and he immediately gave me a court date of Jan 6, 2000. I did try to quiz the Magistrate about how much time I would have in Court, but he couldn't or wouldn't tell me.

It actually would have been less interesting if I had prevailed before the Magistrate (there's that Chinese curse again) since I would have missed the chance to see my friend the police officer again, and hear him explain himself. I produced a greatly streamlined defense brief and headed to Court armed with my brief, my documentation, my little blue sheet directing me to the first session court room, and my Computer Magazine to read while I waited. They told me where the first session court room was, but after a while I asked the clerk if I was in the right place, and she told me no, that it had been moved to Courtroom 3! I guess I could have missed the whole thing, but as it was I was only two minutes late to the right courtroom. It wasn't the kind of thing that gives you great confidence in the court's organizational ability.

It turned out that a trial from the day before hadn't finished, so we saw the prosecution and the defense finish the closing arguments, a couple of jurors be designated alternates, and the jury get instructions and be sent out. The motorcyclist coming home from the bar at 2am sounded drunk to me! This took around an hour.

Getting to the civil cases, I saw a couple of eviction cases. One involved a single mother of four who was being evicted from her Concord digs. Her lawyer, retained that same week, admitted that she was already on a stay of an eviction order, and was willing to pay $500 rent but couldn't get a place because subsidized housing required her to have so many bedrooms with her size family, and there just weren't any houses available that big.

The judge required her to pay $500 for January immediately, $500 for December within two weeks, and $500 for February the first week of February. She had to widen her search for housing, and be out of the house for once and for all by the end of February. Seemed pretty compassionate and business-like; I figured that she wasn't a bad judge to face.

At this point we got to the ticket appeals. The judge explained to us all that there was no conviction beyond a reasonable doubt in these cases, just a preponderance of the evidence. In other words, if the balance tips ever-so-slightly toward the cop, you're going to retain the ticket.

One guy gave a laughable defense for a speeding ticket. He was ticketed for 78 in a 55 zone by an unmarked car. His defense was that he had had four tickets within three years, was paying $2000 a year insurance, and had been to driver re-education school just two weeks before the ticket. Since he had learned his lesson and been re-educated, how could he have possibly been speeding? He had vague theories about speedometer calibration of the unmarked car but some of his points made a few people around me chuckle. The judge convicted him; I hoped that it made my no-accidents-in-30-years defense sound better.

I was called up about 10:30, and the trooper gave his description first. I was scared he would say that he was driving around the rotary and saw an accident... but he didn't. He admitted that he was called to the accident and took statements from the drivers. He said that based on the statements of the drivers he had cited me for failure to yield right of way in a rotary.

I had a chance to ask him questions. I asked if he recalled telling me that he had two witness and that he was going to talk to them and the other driver first. He said that he didn't recall that. I asked if he recalled any witnesses at all and he said that he didn't.

I started into my statement, which was more interesting than most of the stuff we had heard previously. I managed to get far enough to argue that if the location of the accident was as I said, then the accident could not have been caused by my entry into the rotary, and thus the ticket should be disallowed. I had a new, simple diagram showing the locations of the vehicles at various times, instead of my potentially unclear diagram with the long line that failed to convince at the Magistrate's hearing.

The judge stopped me as I tried to describe the details of the insurance fraud. I tried to jump to the police report, but she stopped me there as well. I stayed pretty calm, remembering that he who represents himself has a fool for a client, usually because he is too emotionally wrapped up in the proceedings. I think that the reason she stopped me was that she had seen a way to wrap up the proceedings.

She quizzed the trooper on how he knew that the accident occurred near Route 2A. He said that he determined that from the statements of both drivers. She asked him, but what made you think that, and he repeated, the statements of both drivers. She asked again if there was any other evidence, since the other driver wasn't here, and he hesitated, and then said, yes, there was debris in the road. Well, he lied here, but I'm not trying to make a federal case out of it. He certainly couldn't have remembered a thing like that, so he tried to save the case by lying. I did recall the condition of the road, and there was absolutely nothing in the road except a couple of small taillight pieces right in front of the gas station. Since no glass was broken, it wasn't a big-debris kind of event.

Well the judge wasn't fooled. She said that she was ruling for me since the other driver wasn't around to be questioned. Like everyone else in the world who isn't concerned with insurance fraud, she specifically said that she was making no ruling on the alleged insurance fraud one way or another. I hope, however, that my argument along those lines helped her come to the right decision! I said ``Thank you, Your Honor,'' got my paper from the clerk stating that my ticket was ``not retained'' and headed out.

So, voila, a happy ending. I learned a little bit about the justice system, not the least of which is that, yes, Virginia, there is justice in Concord District Court. I believe that the result is that the perpetrators of this event are unable to sue any insurance company for pain and suffering. I know that they can't sue my company, and I don't think they can sue their own. Even if so, that's not a good way to get reasonably-priced coverage in the future. I also suspect that my statements might prove to be a pretty big obstacle to their collecting.

So what's the loose end? The role of the cop, if any. At the accident scene I was pretty disconcerted by the strange state of affairs. I should have tried to confront the cop and the witnesses right away. I should have told the cop that the witnesses must be in collusion with the other driver. I didn't perform too well, but that's an unusual high-stress situation for me. The cop, on the other hand, should have some training and should know that a witness who knows one of the drivers in an accident may appear. It's his job to figure that out as he tries to determine what happened and whether or not a citation is required.

In this case, we had two people from South Boston driving around Concord. If the so-called witnesses were from near there, that should have alerted the cop. When I got the accident report, the witnesses had disappeared, and I was unable to resurrect them in court.

The report itself was not filed until sometime between mid-September and mid-October. It was dated June 10 (?) which raises all kinds of questions about where it was for all that time. When I write a report, I get it printed right away, but sometimes it takes me a few months to do it. I don't buy that June 10 date for a minute.

So we've got a sloppy cop, right? One who perhaps went so far as to tell one white lie in court? Let's play the devil's advocate for a minute and consider the other possibility. What if the cop is from South Boston and knows the perpetrators. They might have known he was on duty, and would be called to the scene. He could have accepted the witnesses' word and issued the ticket enabling them to sue my insurance company down the road.

Upon hearing that I was making a lot of noise about insurance fraud, he sat on the accident report, finally issuing one which protected the witnesses by omitting their names, and supported the idea that the accident was more serious than it was by over-estimating the damage to my lightly-damaged vehicle. You make the call. Base your decision on the preponderance of the evidence, since we already know that this web page doesn't convict him beyond a reasonable doubt!

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