“Would you like to continue with the trial or change your plea?” Judge Hector Gutierrez asks.
“Well,” I say, shuffling through all of the papers in front of me. “I have a question. The ticket cites me for ‘driving on the shoulder,’ but during the arraignment, the judge read the charge as ‘illegally passing on the right.’ Is that the same charge?”
I can feel the other people in the courtroom behind me growing impatient. We’ve already been here for three hours, and they’re still waiting to face the cartoonishly evil Officer Rodriguez and his pile of traffic court citations.
“It’s the same thing,” Officer Rodriguez says like I’m an idiot for not knowing. He had a similar tone during an earlier trial, when the defendant asked, “Officer, you referred to the number two lane. Which lane is number two?”
“The number two lane,” the officer said.
“I’m not familiar with that terminology. Which one is the number two lane?”
“The number two lane,” the officer said.
“Yes, but which one?”
“The number two lane.”
The exasperated defendant looked at the judge, who didn’t seem to notice or at least not mind this obvious display of unnecessary assholery.
Then there was another trial, when the Spanish-speaking defendant and his translator successfully argued his defense, and the judge dismissed the charge. The defendant thanked the judge, shook hands with the translator, then turned to Officer Rodriguez and extended his hand.
Officer Rodriguez backed away and shook his head “no.” That’s right, he straight up refused to shake the man’s hand. Someone sitting near me audibly gasped. “What a dick,” I said out loud. This is traffic court, for Christ’s sake.
Officer Rodriguez, probably in his early 20s, is more of a character than a real person. He’s playing the unnamed role “DICK COP” in one of life’s generic screenplays.
But this movie, it’s not about justice.
“That’s the same charge,” Officer Rodriguez repeats, impatient even though he’s the reason we’re all still here. Based on the number of cases he has lined up, he must’ve gone on a ticket-writing tear on a two-day span in September.
“Then yes,” I say to the judge. “I’d like to go to trial.”
The judge asks Officer Rodriguez to give his account of the traffic infraction he issued me on September 24, two days after my dad died.
As the officer speaks, I feel a slow burning rage rise inside me.
Officer Rodriguez appears at my passenger window. “License, registration, and insurance.”
It’s Wednesday morning, late September. I’d been heading to work on 10 West in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and I’d taken the exit for Vermont as soon as there was enough room to fit my car in the off-ramp. My passenger’s side crossed the solid white line, sure, but I didn’t pass anyone on the freeway. I did what roughly 75% of the world’s driving population would do. I mean, what kind of uptight weirdo waits until all wheels can be on the inside of the solid white line before taking an exit?
I don’t even look at the officer, just shake my head while I pull out the items and hand them over. I’m annoyed. He didn’t have to pull me over for that bullshit.
“Why did you drive in the shoulder, Ma’am?”
“Drive on the shoulder?” I sigh. “Can I just…what are you…look, my dad just died.”
On Monday while I was at work, I got the phone call – my dad had passed away from Parkinson’s disease, and while he’d been living with the symptoms for a long time, his death was still sudden to me. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. But that’s another story I’m still figuring out how to write.
He stares, undaunted. “Why were you driving on the shoulder, Ma’am?”
That’s the exact moment I decide I don’t like this guy. Whether or not he wants to write me a ticket, when someone says, “My dad just died,” anyone who doesn’t respond with, “I’m sorry to hear that,” is a sociopath.
“Driving on the shoulder? Really?" The problem with me is I’m genuine to a fault. That means I can’t act like I like you when I don’t, and I’m incapable of not calling people out on their bullshit. "Like 40 other people haven’t just done that same exact thing since you pulled me over?”
I don’t understand why I should be polite to cops when they're rude to me. You want to write me a bullshit ticket, fine. I’m not gonna kiss your ass while you do it.
I’d also like to note that I understand this is a white privilege. And I also know if I were black, I wouldn’t feel like I could argue with a uniformed officer without literally fearing for my life. I hate that it’s the truth, and I will do whatever I possibly can to make that known and to help change it.
At the same time, my personal truth is that I wasn’t afraid of Officer Rodriguez. I’m not afraid of anyone, really. I’m not saying I shouldn’t be. I get in arguments with people all the time, strangers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how my life ends – being stabbed to death over an altercation about whether or not it’s clear where the cashier line ends in Trader Joe’s.
I’m comfortable with going out like that. There’s a weird dignity to it. Put it in my obituary: “Caller of Bullshit.”
“Why did you just drive on the shoulder, Ma’am?”
“I didn’t…I don’t…” I throw my hands up. “Because I didn’t think it was a big deal. Look, can you just go write me a ticket or do whatever you gotta do?”
He takes my license and disappears for a few minutes before reappearing with his stupid little metal ticket clipboard. “Ma’am, why is the address on your license different from your registration and insurance?”
“What? I don’t know. Because I moved.”
“How long ago did you move?”
“What does that matter?”
“Ma’am, I need you to answer the question.”
“I’m sure longer than what it’s supposed to be. Okay? We good?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. Months.” 36 months, to be exact.
“How many months?”
“I don’t understand why you need to know that.”
“I don’t know. Six-ish? Nine? 12? Give or take a few here and there?”
He nods, starts writing. “I’m writing you a citation for driving on the shoulder and for not having the correct home address on your license.”
“Of course you are.”
He hands me the clipboard. “Sign at the bottom.”
As I sign, I say, “You know, my dad really did die. I don’t know if you think I’m lying or what.”
“I didn’t say you were lying, Ma’am.”
“Ha! Yeah. Okay. Well karma exists, so I hope this comes back to you.” I hold the clipboard out, but before he can grab it, I let it drop in my passenger’s seat, the tiniest of protests.
“Ma’am,” he says.
I ignore him, staring straight ahead.
“Ma’am. Pick up the clipboard.”
I turn to him. “Oh, I’m sorry. What?”
“Pick up the clipboard, Ma’am.”
“Oh okay.” I pick it up and dangle it in the air just far enough so he has to reach for it. He grabs it, his cold stare never once changing, tears off the citation, says some other required nonsense, and walks off.
“At approximately 7:10 on the morning of September 24, the defendant was heading Westbound on the 10 freeway,” Officer Rodriguez states. “There was heavy traffic. The defendant was in the number two lane. She then pulled into the shoulder lane and passed three cars on the right. When I asked her about the incident, she said, and I quote, ‘I didn’t think it was a big deal.’”
He goes on, but that’s the last thing I hear him say. I look down at the file in front of me, now even more worthless than it was seconds before.
For months, I’d taken video of that point on the Vermont exit. For months, I’d listened to my friends tell me that even if I didn’t pass anyone, the fact that I crossed the white line would probably be enough for me to pay the fine. For months, I’d grappled over that two seconds, and I’d thought about every possible angle to prove that if the charge is driving on the shoulder, then I may be guilty of it, but if the charge is passing on the right, I’m not guilty.
In short, I had come to defend the infraction that I was cited for. Call me naïve, but it had never once occurred to me in preparation for this trial that Officer Rodriguez would just straight up lie and say I did something else.
I absolutely did not drive down the shoulder on the freeway. I’d only been on the shoulder for a split second with one side of my car. It’s actually not even possible to pass a car on the shoulder at the point where I got the citation. There's a guardrail there.
“Do you have any questions for the officer?” Judge Gutierrez asks.
“Yes. Uh,” I pause, stammering, trying to collect my thoughts. I’m so angry, I’m shaking. I turn to Officer Rodriguez. “Are you saying that I drove down the shoulder on the 10 freeway?”
He doesn’t even look at me. “Yes, the defendant was in the number two lane and then moved into the shoulder and drove down the 10 freeway passing at least three cars.”
“So wait,” I say. “You’re saying I was on the freeway and passed three cars on the right while driving down the shoulder?” Maybe he’s not meaning to outright lie.
“Yes,” he says, much more impatiently. “On the freeway. On 10 West.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “On the freeway? You’re saying I did this on the freeway?”
“Do you have any other questions for the officer?” the judge asks before Officer Rodriguez can lie again.
I turn to him, my mouth open. “Um. Well. No, I guess not.”
See, the thing about me is that I’m genuine to a fault. That means that even in the midst of everything going on in this country right now with law enforcement officers, I can’t hide the fact that I’m shocked that a uniformed officer would lie under oath over a traffic violation because one morning, a girl who just lost her dad called him on his bullshit. And it was bullshit, and I’m right to fight it. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t be lying.
Now I’m just scrambling. All of my evidence is moot, and I look unprepared and stupid.
“You know,” I say, “I just…I don’t know how to defend against that. What he’s saying I did, I simply did not do. How can I present a defense to you when he’s saying something happened that just didn’t happen?”
The judge gives a condescending nod. “Do you have anything else you’d like to add?”
“Yes.” I don’t really know what to say, but I have to say something. “He forgot to mention that the first thing I said when he walked up is, ‘My dad just died.’ He didn’t mention that part.” I open the file folder, take out my father’s death certificate, and place it on the table, sliding it close enough to Officer Rodriguez for him to see it. As though it would matter to him either way.
“Well, I’m very sorry to hear about the death of your father,” the judge says.
“Thank you, Your Honor, for saying that.” I turn to Officer Rodriguez. He meets my eye for a quick second, then looks away. I just can’t get over the fact that he knows he’s lying, and I know he’s lying, and he knows that I know he’s lying, and yet, here we stand, waiting for “justice.” I know Officer Rodriguez is a dick, but so help me, until this moment, I had no idea that he’s also a dishonorable man.
The judge rules against me based on the credibility of Officer Rodriguez’s testimony. Because he's a cop, and I'm not.
I almost didn’t write this story for so many different reasons. First of all, unarmed black people are dying at the hand of law enforcement with no consequence, and I didn’t want to come off like I’m belittling that with my complaint about something so trivial as having to pay a fine for a minor traffic infraction that I didn’t actually commit. I didn’t want to come off like a little entitled brat who argued with an officer and then complained about the consequence while other people were protesting much more noble causes.
I almost didn’t write this story because I’m a white person (Armenian white, which means most of the time I’m treated as a white person), and I didn’t want it to come off like I don’t realize the type of privilege that allows me. I do. I am not black. But also, Officer Rodriguez is not white.
I almost didn’t write this story because what difference would it really make if I did?
Had I gone into traffic court and lost a case based on the fact that I crossed the white line to exit and I argued with a cop, and those two things together resulted in a $268 fine, then I wouldn’t have written this story. I would’ve complained to my friends and called Officer Rodriguez a dick to everyone that would listen. But I wouldn’t have written this story.
Here’s why I did write this story.
After I left the courthouse, something crossed my mind, something that I saw during another trial that day, the trial where Officer Rodriguez refused to explain what he meant by the number two lane. Seemingly out of nowhere, that defendant said at one point, “I would just like to say that Officer Rodriguez was nothing but courteous during this traffic stop.”
At the time, I thought, “Kiss ass.”
But now, thinking back on his tone, on the look he exchanged with the officer when he said it, I realize he wasn’t really saying Officer Rodriguez was courteous – he was saying the exact opposite. He was doing the only thing he could do – sending a coded message to the officer himself: “I know what you are. I see you.” Just like me sliding the death certificate over was my way of saying, “You and me know what this is really about, and it’s personal.”
After I realized that Officer Rodriguez had lied during my case, I realized that he probably lied during that case, too. And he’d probably lied during the case with the translator, where he’d refused to shake the man’s hand. And that’s just one day in court from his year and a half in service, a fact the judge had gleaned at the start of the first trial.
I’m writing this story because it’s the perfect illustration of what is wrong with the justice system in this country.
Amidst the tension surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I’ve seen several social media posts in defense of police officers in general. I get the argument that not all police officers are bad. Of course I get that. We all do. Stop insulting our intelligence and acting like we can’t acknowledge that. We know that there are police officers who are kind, who are good, who are protectors, who joined the force because they believed in justice.
But to those officers and the defenders of those officers, I’d say this: you should be angrier with corrupt officers and the injustice in the system than anybody. They’re the reason why the community doesn’t trust you. They’re the evidence of why the justice system is and needs to be scrutinized, criticized, and completely overhauled. They are not protectors of the people – they are what the people need protection from.
The truth is, Americans want to believe in justice. We want to believe that this country works the way we were taught it does when we were kids saying (or exercising our right not to say) the Pledge of Allegiance in school. We want to believe that we are truly free.
I want to believe it so much that when I go to trial for a traffic ticket one day, I never once consider the possibility that an officer of the law would simply lie under oath, and the court would take his side based on nothing but the fact that he’s a cop. Despite the grand jury’s refusal to indict in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, despite the building evidence of incident after incident where uniformed police officers are more of a threat to the people than crime, I was still shocked when Officer Rodriguez lied.
I’m writing this story because it’s not about what happened to me. It’s about what could happen to so many other people. If Officer Rodriguez is crazy enough to fabricate stories in traffic court, and if Judge Hector Gutierrez based his judgment solely on the credibility of his word, then that system is, to say the least, flawed, and to say the most, a blatant disregard for justice. And worse, that system has given unlimited power to a dangerous and vindictive man. A man who has a gun, a badge, and judge-sanctioned credibility. Even though I’m a white girl, and this is a traffic ticket, that is not okay. You get me? That is NOT okay.
I’m writing this story because, besides filing a formal complaint against the officer (which I’ve done) and submitting for appeal (which I can’t do due to the nature of the issue), it’s the only thing I can do.
But mostly, I’m writing this story because I believe that Officer Rodriguez, ID # 17510, of the California Highway Patrol is exactly the type of law enforcement officer who will murder someone someday and get away with it, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t at least say something.
About the Author
Leah Kayajanian is a comedian and writer who lives in L.A. She spends her days working at a school and her nights doing standup and creating cool things with her friends.