While Radley Balko is busy studying up for his CPA exam (or something like that), he’s got some friends providing guests posts at the Agitator. One guest is Lenore Skenazy from Free Range Kids, fighting to keep our children from being put in a hermetically sealed bubble so they never skin their knee and, instead, have a life.
Lenore picked up on a story in the New York Post about unicycling high school student, 18-year-old Isaih Rosemond.
Isaih was stopped on Rockaway Parkway in Canarsie on May 23 as he was riding his unicycle to Edward R. Murrow HS in Midwood. He said a patrol car pulled up behind him and honked. He was surprised to see that the cop was cross. “I just assumed they were going to ask me about my unicycle,” Isaih said. But the female officer was in no mood for chitchat.
“Don’t you know it’s illegal to ride a bicycle on a sidewalk?” she snapped. Isaih assured her unicycles aren’t banned from sidewalks and whipped out his iPhone to show her a government Web site that would prove it. She didn’t want to see it and gave him a ticket that carried a possible maximum fine of $100.
[Note: New York Post readers have difficulty reading paragraphs of more than one sentence. I have taken the liberty of modifying the content into longer paragraphs.] What caught Lenore’s eye was what happened in court afterward.
Which reminded me of today’s “happy” story in the NY Post about a young man who’d been given a $100 ticket for riding his unicycle on a Brooklyn sidewalk — even though he offered to show the cop a government web site on his iPhone that stated it is NOT a crime. The cop didn’t care. Worse — when he got to court, at first the judge refused to listen to him.
[Judge] Delury also warned him not to ride his bicycle on the sidewalk again “or I’ll put you in Rikers.”
Isn’t that a little FLIP? A high school student rides a unicycle on the sidewalk (incidentally NOT breaking the law) and the next thing you know a judge is threatening to send him to JAIL?
Eventually the judge backed down — but only after the kid had the guts to request a second appearance in front of him to ask for a jury trial. By then the judge had finally DEIGNED to read the ACTUAL LAW. He then declared the issue “dismissed.”
What a lucky break! The kid is not going to do hard time for not breaking a law!
While this story may appear to reflect a terrible failure of the courts, and thus be used to bolster anger and frustration, when viewed through the eyes of a lawyer, it’s not quite so bad.
Initially, the City of New York has regulations about riding bicycles on the sidewalk because of unsurprisingly regular collisions between cyclists and pedestrians. With the population density of New York, bikes and people collide all the time, and the ensuing harm to the pedestrian is often quite severe. This is a very real problem, and most New Yorkers have at least had a close call with a bike and appreciate the strict enforcement of this law.
As for unicycles, however, the law is different. But unicycles are zebras, oddballs. While one might hope that a cop would know the difference, it comes as no surprise in this instance that the cop was unaware of the nuance. This isn’t the sort of thing they run into regularly, and while police often get the law wrong on matter they should certainly know, they are sometimes caught unaware with outlier problems. This was an outlier.
This isn’t to excuse the cop’s issuance of a summons for perfectly lawful behavior, and indeed is it lawful to ride a unicycle on the sidewalk. It’s the cop’s responsibility to know the law before issuing a ticket, even when the circumstance is an outlier. Ignorance doesn’t give the cop greater authority. When confronted with an outlier situation, the responsibility should be to first ascertain whether any wrong has occurred rather than merely assume the law to apply and the act to be unlawful.
Isaih then relied on a “government website” to show that riding his unicycle on the sidewalk was lawful. What government and what website isn’t stated in the story, but it’s critical for people to understand that websites do not “prove” that something is lawful. There are two primary sources for the law, statutes (including local ordinances and regulations) and court decisions. Websites are not proof, and if when looking to a “government” website, make sure it’s the right government.
Lenore argues that when Isaih went to court, the judge refused to listen to him. That’s not quite accurate. Isaih was offered an ACD, an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, which means that the case would be dismissed if he didn’t get in trouble again in six months. The “send you to Rikers” pap is the normal “scared straight” speech given to anyone offered an ACD. It isn’t real, but is regularly used to keep people from violating the ACD.
While he may have argued that what he did was perfectly lawful, competent lawyers will come prepared with the statute or caselaw that supports the argument. Unlike television, it’s not all cheap talk.
The question of whether the judge should have known the law is another problem. Not even judges are omniscient, which is one of the reasons for lawyers to exist. People expect lawyers (and judges are just lawyers with robes) to know everything there is to know about the law, every law, every nuance of every law, off the top of their heads.
We don’t. Judges don’t. No matter how much we know, there’s always more to know. This is why we do research. This is why we come to court prepared to support our arguments. Perhaps there shouldn’t be so many laws, so many variations on the law, but that’s a matter for the legislature and the voters, not the lawyers.
To his credit, Isaih refused the ACD and returned for a second appearance to challenge the ticket. Lenore is quite right that it’s a pretty bold move for an 18-year-old kid. But to the judge’s credit, after the initial appearance, he did his research and ascertained that Isaih was right, and that a unicycle is not a bicycle and is not prohibited on sidewalks. In other words, the judge did the job that a lawyer would have done for Isaih had he come with counsel at his initial appearance, and determined how the law applied to this outlier situation.
And Judge John Delury dismissed the summons.
Stories are legion of bad judges and courts gone awry. This just isn’t one of them. While it’s understandable that a nonlawyer might read the New York Post story and be left with a misimpression that something went terribly wrong, blaming Judge Delury is misguided. All things considered, this case reflects a court doing a pretty decent job, and a judge who made an effort to make sure the right thing happened.
As much as people on the internet thrill at the notion that every case shows the failure of the system, it’s important that people not overlay ignorance about the system to create failure where it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen here.