By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Last July, all sworn personnel in the Los Angeles Police Department were issued an ominous notice by top brass, who threatened to run a "personnel complaint investigation" on any officer who chose not to obey it.
The notice prohibits LAPD officers from seeking dismissals of traffic citations in court on the grounds that they don't remember what happened — a situation police call "no independent recollection."
This warning to the rank and file traipses into legal gray areas and has attorneys, police advocates and spooked officers questioning the financial motives of the LAPD and Los Angeles Superior Court.
"Officers shall not request the dismissal of a traffic citation or any other case when they have determined that they do not recall the facts," reads the document, obtained by L.A. Weekly through the California Public Records Act. "Officers are required to testify to the best of their ability when appearing in court."
Although LAPD's Chief of Detectives David Doan embellished the notice with his loopy autograph, its true author was Sgt. Steve Cook, who oversees the Downtown/Metropolitan Los Angeles Traffic Court Liaison Unit.
Explains Cook, "First, I did a plain-paper notice, but [all the officers] said, 'Show me an official notice, or to hell with it.' So I had Doan sign it."
But the man who really motivated the rule, which is forcing economically thrashed Angelenos to face more expensive times in traffic court, is Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Charles McCoy.
McCoy sought the LAPD ticket crackdown after deciding that too many officers in his courtroom were effectively canceling trials because they had "no independent recollection" — known among cops and judges as NIR — of the exact circumstances in which they gave out a ticket.
So McCoy complained to Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich during a meeting on another topic. No sooner had it left his lips than the judge's word became the law of the land. City officials tell the Weekly there are no data to back up McCoy's apparently casual complaint to Trutanich, even though it launched a major policy tightening that could affect thousands of Angelenos.
"I think [he's] probably right," is all Cook can say. "We've gotten a lot of younger officers — a lot who just want to get out of court. ... Why write the ticket if you can't defend it?"
Adds Doan: "Our officers are paid to write a ticket and go to court."
McCoy and other Superior Court judicial officers refused to comment. City Attorney's Office press agent John Franklin rejected a Weekly request to speak with Trutanich about his chat with the judge.
"There's attorney-client privilege here — that's between the client and us," Franklin says. He thought about it a second. "But I would surmise that the judge told the city attorney, 'Hey, we've got a problem.' "
The unusual order to LAPD cops — to testify in cases they can't recall — comes during the worst economic downturn in L.A. since freeways were invented.
Unemployed residents of Greater L.A. are choosing to perform long hours of community service because they can't pay the region's eye-popping traffic ticket fees and $465 red-light camera tickets, revenues from which are pouring into city, county, state — and, through roundabout means, Superior Court — budget coffers.
Community service grew 20 percent in popularity from 2008 to 2009, while average L.A.-area speeding fines jumped, for example, from $381 to $446 in an era of low inflation, according to court reports.
In September, the Los Angeles Police Protective League reacted to the tightened "no independent recollection" policy. Union President Paul Weber publicly stated, "Officers shouldn't be put in a position where they are trying to force these [tickets] through."
LAPD Detective Bernard Barber, from Cook's Traffic Court liaison office, says officers who can't remember the details of ticketing a driver face three escalating LAPD punishments: counseling and a negative comment card, a notice to correct and, finally, days without pay.
Doan and Cook say officers never should have had the option to seek dismissal of cases they couldn't remember, because, like citizens, they should be expected to testify when issued a subpoena.
California Evidence Code 1237 allows a previous statement — such as a traffic ticket — to be used as evidence if an officer "has insufficient present recollection to enable him to testify fully and accurately."
"All we're asking them to do is use their written evidence," Cook says. "For any other question, they can just say, 'I don't know.' "
Not so fast, says longtime defense attorney Sherman Ellison, who specializes in moving violations such as red-light camera tickets. Ellison says the 1237 code can be applied only if the evidence — phrases scrawled on a ticket — is actually able to refresh the officer's memory.
Attorney Steve Mandell backs up Ellison. He's never seen a traffic case in which an officer used solely his traffic ticket as testimony.
"They only write little bits of notes," Mandell says. "The ticket is not evidence. It's a charging document."
Cook says the number of LAPD officers admitting they can't independently remember what a motorist did wrong is occurring "much less frequently" — primarily because of "increased awareness."
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