It was the trial of the century! Well, err, maybe not ... but to Nick Cooper it felt like it took that long to finally get the right to fight a traffic ticket in Houston's municipal court.
In early May 2007, Cooper was handing out apples to a group of homeless people in an alley near the 2000 block of Crawford in Downtown. Suddenly, the cops showed up and began telling the homeless folks to move along. Cooper, a musician, blogger and journalist for www.indymedia.org, began taking pictures of the officers with his cell phone. He got back inside his car and drove about half a block before halting at a stop sign where an officer was standing. He then made a right turn, the wrong way down a one-way street. The officers gave him a ticket.
These were the basic facts argued today in traffic court. But it took Cooper more than $100 in attorney's fees and $36 in quarters, used to feed the parking meter outside the municipal building, over the course of 25 months to get his day in court in front of a jury. He calls himself a "survivor."
This was Cooper's fourth attempt to secure his right to a trial.
Three previous attempts had all been postponed, for no apparent reason, says Cooper. He says the traffic court is so backlogged and inefficiently run that only one jury trial ever takes place a day. As a result, says civil rights attorney Randall Kallinen, many people simply give up and do not fight for their rights.
"The city of Houston is forcing people to plead guilty on traffic tickets by resetting and resetting people's court date," says Kallinen, "and they've got to show up in court all those different days. This is just a simple traffic ticket. The city of Houston is more interested in revenue than a citizen's right to a speedy and fair trial."
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There was some debate during the trial as to whether the one-way street sign was visible, but in the end, Cooper's trial boiled down to a classic case of "he said, she said," or "citizen versus cop." Cooper's attorney argued that HPD officer Curtis Johnson, who issued the ticket, motioned for Cooper to make a right hand turn down the wrong way of the one-way street and that Cooper was simply doing what he was told. Johnson denied ever telling Cooper to make the turn. After nearly a three-hour trial, it took the six-member jury about 15 minutes to convict Cooper, giving him the minimum fine of $100.
Before the trial, Cooper told Hair Balls that he interpreted the citation as a message from the cops telling him not to photograph them as they're "harassing the homeless." After the trial, Cooper said, "I'm glad that I had my day in court finally. When I went in today, I said I hoped that it would be over with, and today I was found guilty. I'm now a convicted criminal of turning the wrong way on a one-way street."
When asked if he felt the many hours, months and years spent waiting for a trial for a traffic ticket was worth it, Cooper said, "In general, I'm kind of stubborn, and when I feel that I'm in the right I want to follow through."
Cooper and his attorneys say they have 10 days to decide whether to appeal. If they do, it will be interesting to see how long it takes.