Citywide LAPD Ticket Shakedown 

Thanks to Judge Charles McCoy, cops now testify even when they don't recall

Thursday, Nov 25 2010

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.

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"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."

But that "increased awareness" looked much more like "fear of getting days without pay" on the faces of 10 LAPD officers the Weekly surveyed as they left Metro Traffic Court downtown last Thursday.

When asked what would happen if they dismissed a traffic-ticket case because they didn't feel comfortable testifying, they were unanimous: That's not an option anymore. None would speak on the record.

One officer says the new policy "sucks" because it's "hurting the people of Los Angeles."

A patrol officer from the Van Nuys division says traffic cops are encouraged, often at roll call, to issue roughly one book of traffic tickets per day as the "unofficial standard" — about 18 tickets daily.

That would be an illegal quota, which have been struck down by California courts.

"They'll say, 'No, no, there's no quota, but this is the average you have to meet,' " the Van Nuys officer says. "But now, the average has been artificially bumped up by the pressure. ... We have to write tickets for beyond what we think is dangerous."

Given each officer's prolific ticket-issuing — it can mean hundreds of minor, forgettable violations, contested months or even years later — many cases will be impossible for officers to recall.

Doan says the new push to try more cases did not originate from within LAPD, noting, "The only people who asked us to do something about it was the court. And if my recollection is correct, most of the money from citations goes to the court."

Cook claims LAPD's interest is to "use court resources more efficiently," not to juice the system to pour more funds into empty government treasuries.

"The judges don't care about the money," Cook says.

But the judge must decide between trusting an officer's limited written evidence and a defendant's denials or excuses.

And attorney Daniel Brookman, who is at traffic court weekly, says "not guilty" verdicts for defendants have grown increasingly rare in Los Angeles Superior Court — near obsolete, even.

"In traffic court, defendants are presumed guilty unless they can prove otherwise," Brookman says. "And if it's a tie, the officer always wins."

Especially, says L.A. traffic attorney Rodney Nosratabi, because few defendants have the resources to hire a lawyer and don't know the legal jargon to "voice the proper objections."

L.A. Superior Court press officer Mary Hearn says about 1.4 million traffic tickets have come through since January this year, and about one-third were dismissed.

But the year before, in 2009, the Weekly has learned, the figures were nearly identical. This means that Judge McCoy’s claims of a surge in ticket dismissals — which he offered without documentation and passed to Trutanich in a casual conversation — appears to be unsupportable, and the subsequent LAPD notice to officers, and that department’s controversial policy change, appear to be based on that inaccuracy.

In fiscal year 2008-09 — the height of the recession, when city, county and state governments were scraping for dollars — citations for traffic infractions jumped more than 150,000 from the previous year, topping 1.83 million, including ticketing by the CHP and L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

The Superior Court's annual report for that fiscal year plainly admits it's about shaking down the citizenry: "With the economic downturn straining municipal budgets, the various cities located in Los Angeles County are turning up the heat on traffic offenders."

Reach the writer at swilson@laweekly.com

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