Monday, January 19, 2009

I Fought The Law And I Won. Getting My $123 Back For Bogus Cycling Citation From A Motorcycle Cop.

Education of bicycle law seems to be a pretty low priority in the LAPD, something even the LADOT acknowledged during the discussions of the Cyclists Bill Of Rights. Some cops are pretty cool with cyclists, but numerous stories have circulated through the cycling community of police unjustly writing citations against cyclists, sometimes feeling like harassment. The unwarranted citing of cyclists for not having bike licenses, a program meant to be optional and used as a way to retrieve stolen bikes, created quite a stir in particular. The controversy may result in the program's dismantling after it was brought to the attention of the L.A. City Council.

So on to my little story with the law. Last year before AIDS LifeCycle, I received my first moving violation while riding my bike. It was actually my first ticket (excluding parking violations), of any kind, as I had a spotless driving record when I did drive. I decided to fight the ticket through the mail by written declaration, since the violation was clearly not valid according to California Vehicle Code. A few weeks ago I received after some substantial delay, the letter confirming that I had in fact won my case and the violation was terminated. I now just received my reimbursement check finally, since to fight a ticket by mail you still have to pay for it first. I'll go over the whole ordeal for the benefit of anyone else who gets a bogus ticket while riding their bicycle.

The Scenario:

It was around 1:15 pm during my lunch break and I had run a quick errand before heading to lunch. I was riding my commuter bike after purchasing a hypoallergenic pillow from Bed Bath & Beyond on Olympic Blvd. and traveling north to go get a bite to eat at GR/Eats on Sawtelle. Traffic was fairly congested as is typical on the West Side during the week and although cars were fast enough to pass me, I passed everyone again at each light.

When it came to get over to the left turn lane at Sawtelle I saw it was a red light ahead and traffic was already slowing, so I signaled to move over and made my way to the left lane pulling up beside a motor scooterist. Then a West L.A. motorcycle cop pulled up right behind me all of a sudden and started tell me I couldn't get over the way I had just had. Of course I didn't agree since I've made left turns all over Los Angeles and up and down the state of California.

The officer directed me to pull over after making the turn, and proceeded to lecture me about obstructing traffic, something I was not doing and he didn't cite me for it anyways. Instead he cited me for CVC 21202, the law that directs cyclists to ride as far to the right as practicable with some exceptions. One of those exceptions is making a left turn, which I was doing, and the fact that I had been using a left turn hand signal was even acknowledged in the notes on the ticket. So I felt it was pretty clear the officer had no case against me, and if I fought the ticket I could win. In addition to his lack of understanding the very citation he was writing me for, the officer also made some snarky comments about it would be different if I was on a different kind of bike. Alluding to a more road racing bike, and I was using my commuter bike at the time to carry the pillow I bought on the back. I included this detail in my letter to further incriminate the officer.

The very first thing I did after getting the ticket was leveraging the collective knowledge of the cycling community for advice through Midnight Ridazz. It just so happened that the cyclist I photographed who was dressed as Santa and given a bogus ticket at the December Santa Monica Critical Mass was also given a citation for the same offense. So he shared with me the letter of written declaration (a written account defending yourself) that he had used in his case.

Something else I learned from others is to delay the process as much as possible so that if you do end up in court the police officer may not remember or care what happened. If the officer does not show up you win by default. To delay the process I waited until just before the due date for paying the fine to request an extension, which you get to do once. Then I waited until just before the extension due date to send in my letter of written declaration. Even if the written letter fails you get a chance for a court appearance after that, which would delay things even further. It is important to note however that apparently if you choose to write a letter of declaration, that account will be used in court and you can not add new details to the case. So it important to go into as great a detail as possible in the letter.

In the end my letter worked, and I got my $123 back. I think it's worth noting the detachment of fine values and offenses. A cyclist riding too far to the left, more a calculated risk for the cyclist them self and often justified by the exceptions, was apparently worth a $123 fine, and yet the new law for texting while driving is a $20 base amount, less then a parking ticket. This despite texting being shown in studies to be more impairing to driving ability than even someone being legally over the blood alcohol limit.

For the benefit of anyone else looking to fight the law over bogus enforcement of the vehicle code, here is my successful written letter of declaration after the innocuous line of separation.

Written Letter Of Declaration, Statement Of Facts:

I would first like to mention the California Vehicle Code 21202 (a) for which I was cited states:
“(a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:”
C.V.C 21202 (a) also states several exceptions to this rule and the relevant exception in my case is number two:“(2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.”

As I was pedaling my bicycle Eastbound on Olympic Blvd, which was busy as usual, during my lunch break. It was congested enough I was even passing some cars along the way. I prepared to change lanes in anticipation of making a legal left turn to proceed north on Sawtelle Blvd. I placed my left arm outward in a straight line to signal my intention to motorists that I was preparing to make a legal left. This can be a challenging maneuver on a wide multilane street like Olympic, but as a competitive cyclist who has trained for events as large as riding from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I am intimately familiar with safe and legal navigation of traffic. The signal ahead went to yellow and then red as I needed to make my move over, which was ideal since it slowed the already congested traffic significantly. So I continued to signal my intention and began moving over, checking over my shoulder for clearance with lane changes. I safely got over to the left lane, extending my hand to indicate a turn signal the entire time, and pulled up next to a scooter waiting at the red light.

At this point a motorcycle officer pulled up behind me, and began yelling at me aggressively, asking me what did I think I was doing. I was frustrated and taken aback. In all the thousands of miles I’ve bicycled in California, I had never been hassled for simply trying to make a left turn which is a protected right as mentioned in number (2) of the 21202 (a) exceptions.

The officer directed me to pull over after making the left turn through the intersection and began writing up the ticket. I explained that I had a right to make a left turn to which he replied I was obstructing traffic. Yet, he did not cite me for obstructing traffic. I assume that is because that assertion was absolutely untrue, considering the cars were approaching a red light. The officer also made an derogatory remark that if I was riding a “different kind” of bicycle it would have been different, implying that it was okay for a road racing kind of bike to be in traffic, but not a commuter bike, which was what I was riding at the time to carry items I purchased at the store on my storage rack. I found this highly offensive since no where in the vehicle code does it state that certain kinds of bicycles have more or fewer rights then others (except for children's bikes). Additionally, I am in fact an amateur bicycle racer with the preferred “kind” of bike he was speaking of sitting at home at the time.

I ride fast no matter what bicycle I’m on at the time, and have no interest in obstructing car traffic. I was simply trying to make a legally protected left turn as a vehicle, which a bicycle is considered according to 21200. (a) “Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway has all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this division, including, but not limited to, provisions concerning driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages or drugs, and by Division 10 (commencing with Section 20000), Section 27400, Division 16.7 (commencing with Section 39000), Division 17 (commencing with Section 40000.1), and Division 18 (commencing with Section 42000), except those provisions which by their very nature can have no application.”

I could understand an officers objection if I did not make my intent to move left clear, however I used my hand turn signal (which the officer acknowledged and even mentions in the note on the ticket) and glanced over my shoulder to check for clearance with each lane change.

For the reasons stated above, I request that the violation of 21202 (a) be dismissed.

Statement Of Facts: Gary Kavanagh, Citation # 9709913


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on getting the ticket dismissed, and thanks for explaining the way in which you went about it. Haven't had a run-in with any cops (knocking on wood), but it's always good to hear stories about dealing with tickets.

Eric Hill said...

Very interesting, Gary. Glad to see you got out of it. And, thanks for posting your declaration! I'll keep a note of that in case I need it some day.

I had an agonizing experience with the law the week before Christmas (this is a brief car story). I had moved a year earlier and had not realized my plate's sticker had expired. I don't go around looking at my own plates, after all. It's sort of like getting a ticket when you have a break light out. How the hell would I know what the ass of my car looks like? Why not a warning? Anyway - it was my fault, I admit that, so I took my ticket with a heavy sigh and worked hard to get it behind me.

I went and corrected the situation at my local DMV the very next day, then that afternoon drove all the way down to the Oakland courthouse to pay the silly fine (it wasn't much - this was a "correctable" ticket that won't go on my record - my time is worth more than the freaking ticket, but whatever).

The snarky man behind the desk and shatterproof glass told me I had fixed the problem too quickly; I could not pay the ticket then, and would need to wait around 4-6 weeks to take care of it via mail. I was stunned beyond belief at the pathetic gridlock our local bureaucracy had become, and simply couldn't believe I couldn't pay the ticket I held in my hand. Nearly speechless for 2 minutes, I walked in a daze back to my car. Then the expletives issued forth in rapid fire.

I have yet to receive anything in the mail. At some point, I'll probably have to drive back down there again, stand in line, and be told to suffer even longer.

Anonymous said...

This is most RIGHTEOUS!

Excellent details for future use too...


Gary said...

I wanted to share for everyone's benefit should they encounter an issue with receiving a moving violation. I also highly recommend any nerdy cycling types to check out the book Bicycling And The Law, which I am in the middle of reading right now. It goes over the whole legal foundation of law as it applies to cyclists with historical background from the days of cyclists primarily competing with horses on the road.

Flunky Carter said...

Glad you won Gary. I've won my citations as well.

marsh said...

I didn't realize that you had to ride to the right of the lane on a bicycle... Does this mean that cars are allowed to "share" a lane with you (by which I mean blow by you at 50mph 6" away)?

I usually take a whole lane on 20th street riding home at night, due to some close calls in the past. If I'm taking up the whole lane, the bozos switch lanes before speeding past me, rather than nearly clipping me.

If I can't do that, ugh, it's back on the sidewalks for me, legality be damned. It's not like we have pedestrians in LA anyhow.

Gary said...


The requirement to ride to the right of the lane features a number of exceptions, and is often misunderstood by riders and cops alike. The law says to ride as far right as practical, however what is practical is subject to interpretation. Depending on the lane width, the condition of road, and the presence of parallel parked cars, I very often ride in the center of the lane. For more info on bikes taking the lane I have a post on the very subject including a link to the actual law text.

I interrupt the law as more keep to the rightish unless the road is narrow, lined with door zones from parked cars or shoulder totally sucks. Riders are not expected to shove them selves off the road into the gutter and it is generally safer to be far enough left to be seen.

Cops will rarely cite for this offense and when they do it is a particularly easy one to win. And before jumping on the sidewalk, due to visibility issues and drivers not expecting fast moving traffic on a sidewalk, most car on bike accidents the cyclist was riding on the sidewalk, hit at driveways and intersections.

My post on why bikes belong on the road and the hazards of sidewalk riding.

marsh said...

Thank you for the info, Gary!

I'm a pretty pokey bike commuter so speed is not usually an issue for me on the sidewalks. If I'm sharing with foot traffic I'll ride their speed. I thought this article you linked to had some great guidelines.

Gary said...

Glad the info was helpful. If you are going to do sidewalk riding, be vigilant at those driveways and intersections, because cars sure aren't paying attention a lot of times. I rollerblade commute every once in a while and since skates are obligated to be on the sidewalk I run into (not literally yet thank god) lots of motorists not paying attention when pulling out or pulling out too fast and I have to avoid or suddenly stop. I used to play hockey so my regular skating speed is often faster then many casual cyclists. Sometimes when I am feeling more daring I skate in the street anyways because I feel safer and less obtrusive to pedestrians, however this is not technically legal.

Also one thing that commute by bike article I think does not highlight, is if you are sidewalk riding, it is waaaay safer if you ride on the side of the street with the flow of traffic. The most common type of car on bike accident of them all is riding against the flow of traffic on the sidewalk. When drivers pull out they often only look left then go, but if you are traveling against the flow of traffic they will not see you coming.

Hope this info helps. Happy & safe riding out there.

Anonymous said...

btw, a texting while driving fine will generally end up being about the same as yours. Court fees and extra fines added on run about $100 a violation, give or take about $20 depending on the county. Glad you managed to get your money back.