Paperwork Puzzles

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

“You are technically correct: the best kind of correct.”Futurama

So you got a ticket for 56 in a 35 zone and filed a massive discovery request. In the response was a smoking gun proving the speed limit was illegal and the radar gun hadn’t been calibrated since ever.

And you walk out guilty as charged, not because the court is corrupt but because you don’t know the rules of the game.

If the radar gun said 56, the judge can believe you were going 56.

When the officer says there was a 35 mph speed limit sign, the judge can believe the limit is 35.

Maybe you lost on the radar issue because you forgot to say “Objection! No foundation.” the instant the officer mentioned the radar reading. Maybe you lost because a visual estimate and an uncalibrated radar combine to prove speed beyond reasonable doubt. That is the rule in some states.

Was your smoking gun a letter saying the city had no engineering study on file? You argued state law requires speed limits to be based on engineering studies and they didn’t do one.

Your discovery (or FOIA) response doesn’t say “we didn’t do an engineering study.” If the city’s lawyer is any good it says “we can’t find a copy.” In some states the judge can assume they did a study and the dog ate it. In others absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

Records do get confused sometimes. I received letters saying there was no record of a speed limit that I knew was approved. I wrote back asking them to check the paper files, not the computer, and there it was. Data entry error. Not “the dog ate it”, but close.

If you convince the judge to ignore the 35 mph limit, police may say you were still violating the law against driving over 55 (except where posted higher). Who wins?

In California you would win based on the “speed trap” law. In Pennsylvania you would lose; there is a case directly on point. Different states, different rules. Don’t argue California statutes in a Pennsylvania court.

Did you argue that federal law requires an engineering study? You’ll need to back that up. In my state the judge can demand printed copies of all relevant CFR and USC sections if you argue federal law. When arguing state statutes you can say “go look it up yourself you lazy bastard,” especially if you don’t mind going to jail for contempt of court.

There is no constitutional right to proof of an engineering study or similar paperwork. It derives from laws, regulations, and rules of evidence. The rules are not uniform. They are full of technicalities, arbitrary distinctions between similar situations.

It’s their game and you play by their rules. If you don’t understand those rules, you can lose a winnable case, or waste a lot of your time on a hopeless quest for justice.

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