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CASE UPDATE: (Un) Community Policing

We Have A Case Update!

On September 26, we posted a story called “(UN) COMMUNITY POLICING” which detailed how the previous Thursday McAlester Police Department officers were ticketing citizens for travelling down 6th street unlawfully. The city had closed the street to do some road construction, however one lane was left open and no traffic control devices or cones were placed in the open lane indicate it was not to be used.
We pointed out that this confused many drivers who proceeded through the road closure signs and traveled on the open lane. Rather than get out of a vehicle and move a cone so that the lane was clearly marked, officers instead chose to give out numerous citations. The drivers of those vehicles, like our client Jeremy Nelms, explained to an officer that they were simply confused and had no intentions of traveling on a “closed road” if they only knew that the road was actually closed. When Mr. Nelms explained this to Officer Kevin Bishop, he still received a citation for disobeying a traffic control device. Mr. Nelms watched in shock as officer Bishop as well as other officers next set up near the closed road area and began to pull over and ticket other motorists. This prompted him to take a video and post it to social media. We do not know for sure how many motorists were ticketed for the same violation as Mr. Nelms that day.
Fortunately, someone with some authority to move or set up traffic control devices (a citizen cannot and it is actually a crime if you interfere or move such a device/cone) came out the next morning and placed an orange and white striped cone with a yellow light on it in the middle of the lane at both the entrances of the work zone. You can observe from the pictures posted the difference in the placement of traffic control devices from one day to the next and how it could have been confusing for drivers.

You Are Entitled Due Process

This may seem like kind of low-level issue, but remember a traffic citation carries with it the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. Before a government can punish you for violating a law and take your money through fines and court costs, you are entitled to due process, a trial. On our September post we offered to represent anyone who was ticketed during this incident and pointed out that the option to give out tickets rather than just adjust the signage on an intersection is closer to a policing for profit model than any kind of community policing model. Jeremy Nelms was the only citizen who took us up on our offer to hold these officers accountable and yesterday his trial took place in the McAlester Municipal Court.
Brecken cross-examined the officer who admitted that he did take a picture rather than move the cone over and block the open lane. He claimed that the “Road Closed” sign was sufficient and that the average motorist would not be confused, despite Mr. Nelms recounting how he explained to Officer Bishop how confusing the signage was in real time. Officer Bishop heard that and went and took a picture in anticipation of having to defend his position in the future rather than just move a cone over. Mr. Wagner next pointed out to the court that there was an Oklahoma law that made it unlawful to cite a citizen for not following a traffic control device if the device is not “properly place” and would cause the average citizen confusion.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

In her ruling the judge stated that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and if she had encountered that same intersection, she would have found it confusing. Mr. Nelms was found “Not Guilty” and did not have to pay a fine, loose his CDL, or have to explain to his insurance company why he got a ticket for not obeying traffic signals.
Again, we don’t typically highlight city traffic ticket trials, but this was such a gross departure from what a citizen should expect from a local police department that claims to practice “community policing”. There were so many opportunities to do better here. To our knowledge all of the other motorists that were ticketed that day paid their fines and did not challenge what they court found was not a citation that would stand up against scrutiny. If it was not for the courage and persistence of Mr. Nelms to stand up and speak out that this was not right, any lesson that our local police department could gain from this experience (assuming that they will take a moment and reflect on why this case was thrown out) would have been lost. It was truly an honor to represent Mr. Nelms and we wish him luck in the future.
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