Thursday, December 20, 2007

My Experience As a Witness In Court

It would normally have been a lazy August Saturday. But some of my friends talked me into going with them to do some spelunking in Logan Cave. A couple of the guys were quite experienced and had formal training (and gear). After spending four hours exploring, wading through icy underground rivers, wriggling through tight spots, and getting a few bruises, we emerged into the beautiful mountain sunshine.

After drying off and removing as much of the mud as possible, we climbed into our vehicles and headed down Logan Canyon. It was afternoon by this time, and traffic on the two-lane road was heavy. One of our cars made its way into traffic. After a few more vehicles went by, the car I was in made it onto the road. But we weren’t on the road long before we noticed a problem.

The Drunk Driver
The fourth vehicle ahead of us was maneuvering somewhat erratically. When a third lane opened for a short distance, the vehicle behind that guy got around him. The road meanders through the beautiful canyon, so passing opportunities are limited. Finally, another vehicle succeeded in passing the slower moving, erratically driven vehicle. It was about that time that it dawned on us that the guy must be drunk. None of us in the car had ever had a drink before, so we were altogether unfamiliar with drunkenness.

This was in the days before cell phones, but my friend’s car was equipped with a CB radio. Unfortunately, within the steep canyon walls, we were unable to raise a response via the radio. The drunk guy kept swerving into the dirt on the side of the road, but when the Suburban between us tried to pass him, he swerved back the other way and nearly ran the Suburban off the other side of the road. After several attempts, the Suburban made it.

We then got to see the full effect of this guy’s wild driving. He managed some curves remarkably well. But other times he would swerve all the way into the dirt on the right side of the road and then over correct to drive in the dirt on the left side. Somehow, every time he did that, it happened to be when a space in oncoming traffic occurred. He could easily have hit an oncoming vehicle head on. We honked and flashed our lights at the guy to try to get him to pull over, but this had no effect. We didn’t dare try to pass the jerk.

Finally we followed the road around the edge of the Utah State University campus and began heading west on 4th North in Logan. Although the road had widened out into two lanes on each side, the drunk kept sliding partially into the lanes to his left and right, nearly side swiping a motorcyclist. We still couldn’t raise anyone on the CB, so we followed the guy until he pulled into a Chevron station on the southeast corner of 4th North and Main. He got out of his car and went into the restroom.

The Arrest
I hopped out of the car and ran to the Safeway store next door, where I called the police dispatcher on the pay phone out front. She kept me on the phone until a police cruiser arrived. The officer asked me to sit in the passenger side of his vehicle and give him the whole story. He pulled up along side my friend’s car and chatted with everyone in the car about what we had seen. We had plenty of time to chat because the drunk was in the restroom for a long time.

When the drunk finally came out of the restroom, he sauntered to his Chrysler Cordoba, opened the door, and climbed in. But he kept one foot on the ground. The officer explained to us that he needed to have the guy in his car with the door closed and the keys in the ignition before he could arrest him. We were parked behind a partition, but the culprit could easily have seen us had he bothered to look our way (and had his perception not been impaired).

The guy leaned back in the driver’s seat and sat with his cowboy boot on the ground. He stayed that way for a long time. Then he reached behind the driver’s seat, pulled out a bottle of booze, took a chug from it, and put it back. But he still sat there reclining with his foot on the ground and without the keys in the ignition. We wondered how long this could go on.

Then suddenly (and quite rapidly for an impaired guy), the drunk had his door closed and his car was moving. He slowly pulled his car into the parking area of the gas station. The officer immediately maneuvered right up behind him and turned on his overhead lights. The driver took no notice of this. He slowly drove to the lot entrance that opened onto Main and slowly made a left turn across two busy lanes of traffic, causing cars in both lanes to screech to a halt. He was only going five or six miles per hour. The officer followed him as he slowly forced his way into southbound traffic, seemingly oblivious to the vehicles he was forcing to stop.

By this time, the officer had turned on his sirens. But the drunk apparently took no notice of this for about a block or so. He just moseyed down the road like nothing was wrong. Finally he saw the police cruiser on his tail. He took about half a block to slowly pull into the right lane, and then he finally turned into a decrepit establishment that had once been a gas station, and came to a stop. The officer pulled up so that my window was right next to the drunk driver’s window. Another police cruiser had joined by this time. He pulled up behind the drunk to block any escape.

I got a close up view of the officer performing his first sobriety check: finding the driver’s license. The drunk pulled out his wallet and leafed through the cards, finally finding his license on the seventh time that he encountered it. Then our cowboy booted friend was asked to step out of his car. They had him stand on a spot, stretch out his arms, close his eyes, and then try to touch his nose with each index finger, one hand at a time. He did OK at that. Then they had him walk toe-to-heel straight down a line on the pavement. He didn’t do too badly at that, but when it came time for him to pivot and return on the same line, he nearly went down. He regained his balance, but then started off in another direction on some imaginary line that none of the rest of us could see. At this point, the drunk was handcuffed and put into the rear seat of the second cruiser. They didn’t have on board breathalyzer tests back then, so they had to take him to the police station. They asked us to come along. I continued to ride in the cruiser.

Upon arriving at the police station, the four of us were taken to separate rooms and asked to write on official forms everything we could remember of the incident. This took a long time. We then were requested to swear before an official that our affidavits were truthful, which we all did. This whole incident took a couple of unplanned hours out of our schedule. But when we found out that the drunk’s destination had been Ogden, some 40 miles distant from Logan, we were glad we had done it. The whole thing was such a unique experience, that I went home and wrote about it in my journal.

One day in late autumn I received a subpoena to appear and testify in court in Logan. Within a couple of days, I had spoken on the phone with a prosecutor. He explained that the gentleman that we had gotten arrested for DUI had pleaded innocent and his case was going to trial.

On a rainy day in November my friends and I drove up to Logan. I brought my journal with me. We first met with the prosecutor. He explained to us that he could only say certain things to us in order to protect the rights of the accused, but he described what was about to happen. He said that potential jury members were seated in one courtroom, and that a pretrial hearing was underway in another courtroom. The defendant’s attorney was trying to have some evidence suppressed.

We sat in the hallway outside of the courtroom along with the two police officers that had been involved with the arrest. We were instructed to say nothing to each other about the case. One of the officers was invited into the courtroom. He was in there for about five minutes. He came out and said that the judge wanted one of us. It didn’t matter to him which one. Since I had my journal, I was nominated.

I was sworn in and seated on the witness stand. I could see the accused sitting there looking like he had a bad hangover. His wife was with him. The judge explained what was going on and then said that the defense attorney had some questions he wanted to ask. He was a very articulate guy and asked a number of very pointed questions. It was rather obvious that he was trying to trip me up in some way. I answered as honestly and straightforwardly as I knew how. I could soon tell that the attorney was getting frustrated with me, because I was apparently ruining his defense.

The attorney finally asked in exasperation how I could be so sure of the events surrounding his client’s arrest. I explained that I had my journal with me, in which I had recorded the events of that day. The judge asked if he could see my journal, so I handed it to him. He opened it to the marked page, leafed through a few pages before and after the page, and then started reading. He soon got the most comical look on his face, but only said that it was obvious that my journal was recorded as per my testimony.

Following this, I was asked no further questions, but they kept me on the stand for a few minutes while a flurry of discussion went back and forth between the defense, the prosecution, and the judge. Finally, the defense attorney asked permission to address the court. He then said that his client had decided to change his plea to guilty. The judge smiled at me, thanked me for my time, and dismissed me.

After the hearing, we again met with the prosecutor. He was circumspect, but it was impossible for him to keep from showing that he was rather tickled with the way things had turned out. He then explained to us that the defendant had two prior DUI convictions, and that between the August arrest and this hearing, he had again been pulled over for DUI in Logan Canyon. I never did find out how the drunk was sentenced, but I was happy to have been a part of his conviction.


Anonymous said...

That's a great story. Thanks for sharing.a

Bradley Ross said...

Good for you for keeping a journal! I only wish I followed in your footsteps more diligently. I've been told that in this age of lawsuits, some prominent people are less likely to keep a journal because they don't want to have a written record that can be misconstrued later on.