As soon as I pulled out to pass, I realized it might have been a mistake.
We had been visiting a friend who has been restoring her historic house outside Buckingham, Virginia, about an hour south of Charlottesville. Sunday morning, January 8, we were driving into Farmville to pick up the Washington Post and New York Times1 and got stuck behind a leisurely driver traveling, in a 55 mph area, at about 25 mph. The two-lane road did have occasional passing areas, but at the first one a line of opposing traffic kept us on our side.
Around the next curve, another passing zone beckoned. A cluster of three cars approached, followed, after a large gap, by an SUV. As the last car passed I made my move, only then noticing out of the corner of my eye that it was a State Police cruiser. As I pulled back in after passing, the SUV flashed his lights, which I thought was strange – he had plenty of room and hadn't even slowed down. Five minutes later, when I was pulled over, I realized that he'd been signaling his displeasure to the policeman he knew was ahead of him.
The officer claimed that he had seen the SUV from the time that he had pulled out of his driveway, that it had been traveling 50-55 mph since then, and he had seen in his rear view mirror that he had been forced to swerve off the road to avoid me! Obviously, he was giving a far-out-of-towner a bogus story that I couldn't disprove. The citation he issued said "Improper/Unsafe Passing."
Back home, I called the Buckingham County Courthouse to determine the fine – $86 – and the DMV to find out the possible consequences. Improper passing rated 3 "demerit" points, unsafe passing, 4, and they would remain for two years; the slash meant the more serious infraction applied. They said that because of my driving record, I already had the maximum of 5 "safe driving points" from which the demerit points would be deducted, so as far as they were concerned, I would not be affected.
(Accumulating at least 8 demerit points within a year, or 12 within two years, results in an advisory letter; 12 points within one year, or 18 within two, requires completion of a driver improvement clinic, and 18 in one year, or 24 in two, leads to a 90-day suspended license. All points remain for two years. However, there is a separate time interval for how long a conviction remains in DMV records, for example, for query by insurance companies or others. Both improper and unsafe passing remain for 3 years. Interestingly, even major infractions, e.g., speeding in excess of 80 mph, or manslaughter(!), only rate 6 points, but they do remain longer in DMV records, 11 years for each of these.)
They didn't have an opinion of what effect it might have on my insurance, but I wasn't about to call my agent and have my query put in their database. The court date was nearly a month away, February 3, so I had plenty of time to decide if I should contest it.
I was inclined to just mail in the payment, but the "unsafe" part did rile me. Betty Lou was adamant that we should fight injustice. And there was nothing to lose – the officer might not even show up, and at most I'd just have to pay the fine. Being retired means that I didn't have to be concerned about missing work on a Friday, and the drive down, through Orange and Gordonsville, is a rather pleasant one, particularly because we came down the day before, avoiding any rush hours.
On the way, I thought about my "presentation" – I hoped that my MITRE-honed skills hadn't gotten rusty since my retirement.
During the INTRODUCTION I would drop the name of our hostess, who we knew was well known throughout the county, both for her political party activities and for her role in organizing a tour of historic houses, thinking that this might give the judge a more favorable opinion of an otherwise anonymous defendant.
The BODY would include my description of what really happened, as well as something we learned on a reconnoitering drive that morning on the road where the infraction supposedly incurred. In the passing zone, the opposing lane had absolutely no shoulder, and the adjacent grass sloped downwards! There was no way an SUV traveling 50 mph would be able to swerve off there without rolling over.
The CONCLUSION would include that I wasn’t an unsafe driver; that I'd never had an accident that was my fault, and my last traffic ticket was decades ago; so long ago that I couldn't even remember what it was. And that I realized that, with a license plate that was not local, I probably didn't get the benefit of the doubt – a subtle comment on the possible bogosity of such an infraction, of which the judge would no doubt be aware.
When we arrived at 9:15 for our 9:30 court date, we saw a line waiting to approach the bench. We found that they were the 9:00 appointees who wished to plead guilty – why they hadn't just paid their fine earlier was a mystery to me. The judge seemed to be a courtly Southern gentleman, smiling and polite to all. After the 9:30 guilty pleaders, another substantial group, he got around to those pleading not guilty. We noticed that "our" policeman had two cases dismissed.
Soon it was our turn. The officer gave his story, and the judge asked if I had any questions for him. I said that I wanted him to tell me the position of his car with respect to the others. His answer was rather vague, and I asked the judge if he had a piece of paper on which I could diagram my version. He provided a tablet, but to my everlasting gratitude, he gave it to the policeman instead. He drew several vehicles on both sides of the road, seemingly identifying them with very tiny letters, which, however, I could not read. He did draw a dotted line to indicate the trajectory of my passing, and a solid line showing the SUV's path, far off the road before it came back.
The real surprise came next. When questioned by the judge about which car was his, the officer hesitatingly pointed to one on my side of the road, ahead of the slowpoke! Since I'd been following that car for several minutes, that made no sense. I suddenly realized that all he remembered about the encounter was his fiction of seeing the SUV swerve off the road, and he didn't have a picture in his mind of what really happened. And since he assumed that he'd never see us again, he had no reason to document the details of his fabrication. He also claimed that when he'd passed the SUV, which in his story now was on the other side of the road from him, the driver had thrown up his hands about my dangerous passing! Since he could not have seen this if he'd been ahead of me, I'm sure this further increased any doubts the judge might have had.
I then drew my version on the tablet and gave my presentation. Since the officer didn't object to my description of the five-minute delay between the supposed infraction and his stop, the judge asked the officer about its details. If he was ahead of me, did he just turn on his lights and have me pull over? No. Was he so far ahead of me that he had to turn around, come back and turn around again? No.
At this point, the judge tore the page off the tablet, and actually frightened me with the sudden vehemence with which he wadded it up. I guess wasting his time on three bungled cases within half an hour pushed him over the edge. I really expected his next move to be to disgustedly throw it on the floor, but, back in control, he just placed it on his desk, checked off a box on the citation, and sternly warned me to pass safely in the future. I agreed, groveling profusely.
I was framed, but I beat the rap.
1To cap off the morning's events, when we reached the store in Farmville, it had closed for good.