Part 6: Trial by fire
“The twilight zone that lies between living memory and written history is one of the favorite breeding places of mythology.” C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.
By now it should be pretty clear that PV Estates has a problem with racism, and has had one since it was established in 1923, regardless of whether current residents want to remember it. What is less clear is how that translates into harassment of cyclists by the city’s police department. But before I make that connection, it’s important to understand why the city’s decision to employ the LA Sheriff’s Department or to retain its municipal police force is so important for cyclists.
And to understand that, we need to jump up to the very recent past of January 27, 2017, when Deputy Castro of the LASD’s Lomita Substation pulled over thirteen cyclists and cited them for violating CVC 21201(a) while descending from the bottom of the Switchbacks to Portuguese Bend. The operation required Deputy Castro to call in three additional squad cars, and at one point a helicopter.
I suppose you never know when the underwear-clad crowd in clackety shoes will get unruly, turn into a violent mob, and hurt you with the legendary massive arms and fists of, uh, twigly bicycle riders. Thirteen citations later, the cyclists continued on their ride.
The first two of these citations were tried last Thursday in Torrance traffic court. The deputy showed up expecting a slam dunk win and was chagrined when the first case was dismissed and the the second was judged not guilty.
Deputy Castro’s claims were preposterous, and the judge didn’t believe that she had been able to see and identify each cyclist and locate their position while she was traveling 35 mph in the other direction across a median, and the cyclists were traveling at close to 30 mph in what she falsely called “a big mob.” On cross examination she admitted that she couldn’t identify the rider because she was, according to her own confused testimony, ten cars behind the group. When asked whether she had ID’d the cyclist by his calves and buttocks, she admitted she hadn’t.
It turns out that even in traffic court you can’t convict someone who you can’t identify.
But the bigger issue and by far the bigger problem was the court’s total resistance to the argument we made that the cyclists were not in violation of 21202(a) because the lane was of a substandard width, therefore releasing them from the “as far to the right as practicable” language of the statute. On cross examination, Deputy Castro freely admitted she was unfamiliar with the exception and in fact had never read it.
More disturbing, the judge was unfamiliar with and completely unmoved by the argument. We produced uncontroverted testimony by our expert, Dr. Gary Cziko, that the lane measured twelve feet at the most. Dr. Cziko produced measurements of the operational space needed by a bike (4 feet), the average width of a small car (6 feet), and the distance required for a car to pass a bike in California (3 feet). Even though the simple arithmetic showed that 13 feet can’t fit into a 12-foot lane–and that’s assuming zero operational room for the car–the judge was unimpressed with the law or the facts.
Similarly, the cyclist’s testimony regarding obstacles in the shoulder and against the fog line, though uncontroverted or even questioned, were ignored by the court. These two exceptions to 21202(a) are of course the backbone for vehicular cycling, or for what’s known as lane control when circumstances warrant. Having a court that was completely unwilling to countenance uncontroverted facts that demonstrated compliance with the law meant that the victory in this case was strictly a one-off ruling.
Cyclists who can’t defend themselves by showing that the officer failed to identify them, something that won’t happen when the rider is alone or in a group of two or three, will be unable to rely on the strongest argument for using the lane when necessary–at least in Torrance, and at least in front of this particular judge. Equally disturbing was the judge’s repeated apologies to the deputy for finding against the People. “I don’t fault you for citing them,” he said three or four times.
What was that supposed to mean, other than, “Keep writing bogus tickets.”
Deputy Castro took her cue and said, “I guess I’ll just have to up my game.”
Most disturbing is that despite the acquittal and dismissal of these two cases against cyclists lawfully controlling the lane, cyclists in PV are now more likely to be subject to harassment by Deputy Castro and her fellow deputies as they “up their game.” This is why education of the LASD deputies in this matter is imperative whether or not they take over PV Estates, since we already ride so much in Rancho PV.
With the exception of an event many years ago, PV Estates police have never ticketed an entire group for following the law, and at least the city’s web site makes mention of the right of cyclists to control the lane when circumstances warrant. Regardless of which way the city goes, cyclists who want to ride legally on the peninsula have their work cut out for them.
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