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Weird cases: speeding tickets not a fair cop - June-14-12
Source: The Times - Law
A police officer in Florida has been dismissed for ‘conduct unbecoming’ for issuing too many fines to motorists
No football player has ever been dismissed for scoring too many goals. In an odd case from Palm Beach, Florida, however, a police officer has been dismissed for issuing too many tickets to speeding motorists.
In a recent letter of termination, the Palm Beach director of public safety said that officer William Eaton had been guilty of “conduct unbecoming” and using his position to intimidate the citizenry when he wrote 115 traffic tickets in a 16-day period at the beginning of the year.
Mr Eaton is now taking legal action to become reinstated.
After drivers complained of being persecuted, there was a suspicion that officer Eaton had acted in the way he did in protest at a council decision to alter police pension rights.
The local director of public safety, Kirk Blouin, ordered an internal investigation and it reported that Eaton wrote 115 citations in the month following the town council’s vote on January 18, 2012 approving major cuts in police pension benefits.
By comparison, from January 19 to February 18, 2011, Eaton wrote only 16 traffic citations. From December 18 to January 18, 2012, Eaton wrote 25 citations.
It is also alleged that Eaton, a member of the police force for six years, encouraged other officers to increase their citations, while boasting about his own prolific ticket-writing.
Elizabeth Parker, officer Eaton’s attorney, said Mr Eaton started writing more tickets to more effectively perform his duties after the town changed its rules in January to give bonuses based on merit instead of longevity.
The director of public safety, Mr Blouin, said that the previous year, in discussing the possible changes the council might make to pension rules, officer Eaton had made a threat. Mr Blouin alleged that officer Eaton had indicated that if the Palm Beach council – representative of local citizens – were to endorse cuts to the police pension, there might be retaliation against local citizens in the form of enforcing the law with a disturbing zeal. Mr Eaton flatly denies that he ever made such a threat.
Zealous policing has not been seen as legally problematic in England. In 2009, Sergeant Ali Livingstone, from Ipswich in Suffolk, became the officer with the most annual arrests in history. He had arrested 524 people in 12 months, an average of 2.2 arrests every working day.
He said the key to arresting people was simply getting to work early and getting out of the office. “I start most shifts an hour of so before I commence duty,” he declared, “This gives me a chance to research crimes and outstanding offenders.”
Sometimes judges, too, have gone about their work with a startling zeal. Dealing with a West Country rebellion in 1685, Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys sentenced 300 people to death, and more than 800 to be transported. He gave the death sentence to 114 people over just two days. The public didn’t like what the judge did but the king approved.
Judges have also been occasionally overactive when asking questions in court.
In overruling a conviction in a case in 1944 in which two prostitutes were accused of stealing from a client’s wallet, the Court of Appeal noted it was wrong for the judge to have asked witnesses 495 questions.
A recent case in Illinois sets a curious precedent as compensation has been awarded to a state worker whose harm resulted from “repetitive walking”.
In Howell v State of Illinois and Menard Correctional Centre, Tracy Howell won more than $70,000 compensation for injury to his Achilles tendon that was related, he said, to the several miles a day he had to walk across, up and down prison tiers.
The arbitrator found that Mr Howell has suffered “repetitive/cumulative trauma” as the result of his work and had suffered significantly through the “stress” of walking several miles a day.
An American news organisation, Belleville News-Democrat, reviewed cases and found that in recent times the Menard Correctional Centre, a high-security prison, was the source of 230 repetitive trauma claims, resulting in settlement payments in excess of $10,000,000. Most of the claims were from guards who were claiming compensation for hands and elbows injured by turning keys and using locking systems.
Eugene Keefe, an American lawyer and academic, has observed that legal policy that allows compensation for “repetitive walking” might not be good for American health. He cites a study published in 2003 which tracked the steps of 1,136 adults around the United States who wore pedometers for two days.
The data collected showed Americans, on average, took 5,117 steps a day, significantly fewer than the averages in Western Australia (9,695 steps), Switzerland (9,650 steps) and Japan (7,168 steps). Permitting “repetitive walking” litigation would be likely to widen the gap.
It is now an open question whether the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, which confirmed the award in the “repetitive walking” case, will be bound to make similar awards in cases where applicants claim ill-health or injury from “repetitive reading” or “repetitive sitting”.
It would, arguably, also be open to advocates to sue the court system for ill-health consequent upon “repetitive standing” after many years on their feet in courtrooms.
The American litigation system has previously seen some unusual personal injury cases.
Richard Overton from Michigan sued Anheuser-Busch, the manufacturers of Budweiser, for $10,000 for its beer adverts. He claimed to have suffered much harm, including emotional distress and mental injury due to “misleading” Bud Light adverts.
One particular objection of his was the television advert for Bud Light involving two men, a beer truck and fantasies of “tropical settings, beautiful women and men engaged in endless and unrestricted merriment”.
He complained the advert promoted “impossible manifestations”. In 1994, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the fantasies represented in such adverts are not expected to stand up to the rational analysis of the courtroom. Mr Overton’s claim was very soberly rejected by the judges.
In 2004, Timothy Dumouchel, from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin sued a television company for making his wife obese and transforming his children into “lazy channel surfers”.
He said: “I believe the reason I smoke and drink every day and my wife is overweight is because we watched the TV every day for the last four years”.
He claimed that he asked the company Charter Communication to disconnect his service four years earlier. He was removed from their billing system but the service wasn’t stopped so it was delivered free. This kept at least two of America’s then 1,058,662 lawyers occupied for a while but the case did not go to the Supreme Court.
Gary Slapper is Global Professor at New York University, and Director of its London campus. His latest book More Weird Cases is published by Wildy, Simmonds & Hill. You can follow him on Twitter@garyslapper
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