The article below was written by Christopher Heaps. Heaps is a lawyer with Stoel Rives who has volunteered to carry out the “citizen-initiated citation” process (as outlined in ORS 153.058) to retroactively cite Lisa Wheeler (the woman who hit Siobhan Doyle at N. Interstate and Greeley back in October) for “failure to yield”.
The article below chronicles his experience in making the first significant step in that process. It’s a fascinating look into the challenges a citizen can face when trying to work for justice within the system.
The Citation Odyssey
First, my disclaimer. I am a year into my legal practice, and in that time I have worked on permitting and approval for renewable energy projects and natural resource projects, helped some of Oregon’s largest corporations achieve compliance with environmental laws, and dabbled in winery and vineyard law. In that time, I have been nowhere near a courthouse and have done no work related to torts or traffic laws.
My preparation for filing a citizen-initiated complaint consisted of reading Ray Thomas’ pamphlet, attending a two-hour continuing education seminar on bike law, and reading the statute that authorizes citizen-initiated complaints. Because none of those sources indicated the court in which a Multnomah County citation should be filed, I consulted an attorney friend of mine who has done considerable work on traffic citations in Multnomah County.
“I thought of stuffing the complaint in her shirt and running away. But it was a long way to the security checkpoint…”
He confirmed that the correct court was the Circuit Court (Portland has no special traffic court or municipal court) and told me the place to file would be in Room 210 of the Multnomah County Courthouse. At 2pm, I walked across the street to the courthouse and stood in line there. After about a 10 minute wait in line, I approached the lady at the window and explained why I was there. I was met with a blank stare.
“How do I get this filed?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” she replied.
She got up from the desk and disappeared behind a door. A few minutes later she re-emerged.
“Take that down to 106,” she said.
After another approximately 10 minute wait at the window of 106, the same scene was repeated.
“We handle those at 206,” the second lady said.
Back up the stairs I went. This time it was the same words, but different window. “I have no idea.”
Deja vu was beginning to set in. This time I held my ground. “This is the third place I’ve been,” I said. “Can you please get your supervisor?” Mercifully, she did not push the panic button hidden below the desk for summoning the Sheriff’s deputies and instead agreed. “Have a seat over there,” she said, pointing to a ratty looking orange chair. “Thanks,” I said weakly. And then, muttering under my breath, “I think…”
After about 15 minutes, a haggard looking woman in her early 50s emerged scanning the room. As soon as she saw me, she walked briskly over to me. “What is this?” she asked impatiently. Again, I explained. She looked puzzled still, and I was afraid we were at the end of the line. I thought of stuffing the complaint in her shirt and running away. But it was a long way to the security checkpoint and I knew I wouldn’t make it through without a severe beating at the hands of the County’s thugs.
“Follow me,” she said in a surprisingly friendly way. Back down the stairs we went, and around a few corners. We paused in front of one of the many locked, unnumbered heavy wood doors, where she knocked. After a moment, we heard the door being unlocked and an eye peered out from a crack in the doorway. She pushed through and slammed the door in my face as I stepped forward, foolishly thinking I might be invited into the inner sanctum. I found a bench in the hallway and waited, still clasping my complaint form.
“‘Where did you get that form?’ she asked …’You’re not supposed to have that.’
Five minutes went by, then 10. I checked my watch, discovering that we were now closing in on 3pm. Another 10 minutes went by before she emerged from The Door. Again, she walked briskly over to me.
“Where did you get that form?” she asked, as though I was in possession of sensitive national security information. Before I could answer, she said, “You’re not supposed to have that.” This time I was wondering whether my friend Jason would be able to get me out of jail without the rest of the firm finding out.
“I, um, well … I downloaded it from the web.”
“You found this on the Internet?” She did not look pleased.
“Hmmpf….OK, here’s what you need to do. You can’t use that. You need to go over to the Justice Center. Go in the door on 2nd. Tell them what you told me. Ask them to send a police officer to meet you in the lobby because you need a police officer to fill out the form and sign it.”
I had just read the statute. It said nothing about the police filling out the form. In fact, it said just the opposite. It was a law for citizen initiation of a complaint. The law directs the court to accept a filing from a citizen with the appropriate information — the citizen’s name and address and the defendant’s name and address — and then requires the court to direct law enforcement officers to serve the defendant. The law doesn’t even mention the form.
I pondered what to say next. She seemed certain this was the required path, and unlikely to go back through The Door for a second discussion or late lunch or whatever they were doing in there.
“Then what do I do?” I asked.
“Come back here.”
“What do I do with it? What room do I go to?”
She looked surprised, as though she hadn’t thought that far.
“210, I guess.”
“OK,” I said, resigned to working within the system.
A few blocks away on SE 2nd, I found the entrance to the Portland Police Bureau’s heavily fortified Justice Center. Signs everywhere warned me of things I was prohibited from doing. “No rowdy or obnoxious behavior.” “No carrying a firearm.” “No loitering.” And finally, “Only one warning will be given.”
After another obligatory 10-minute wait, I approached the bullet-proof glass window and spoke into the microphone to the military-looking gentleman behind the glass. Once again, I explained the citizen-initiated complaint law and the apparent need for a PPB officer to complete the form. Once again, I got the by-now familiar blank stare.
“I’m not a police officer,” he said.
“Yes, well, that’s fine. But, I need one. Aren’t they here?”
“Go over to the black courtesy phone,” he pointed to the corner of the room, “Press star-five.”
“Is that how…?”
Although the courtesy phone was black, the brown gunk caked all over its handset was clearly visible even in the florescent lighting. I made a mental note to bring my hand sanitizer next time I visited the Justice Center, then dove in.
“You have reached the Portland Police non-emergency number. If this is an emergency, please hand up and dial 9-1-1. Please listen to the following list of options….”
I navigated my way through a few sets of options, none of which seemed particularly applicable. Finally, I reached a live person, the dispatcher. Once again, I gave the explanation. Was this the sixth time? And once again, I got the blank stare, this time as an uncomfortable silence.
“Hello?” I said.
“Wait in the lobby and I’ll send an officer over.” And then he hung up.
I waited, and waited. Forty-five minutes later, around 4pm, I gave up. Clearly, no one was coming. I had now missed almost an entire afternoon of work. And why the hell did I come over here anyway? I knew this wasn’t necessary. Determined to leave the damn complaint with the court clerk, I headed back to the courthouse.
This time I met a new lady at 210, necessitating another Explanation and Blank Stare. After the Supervisor showed up, I asked to see her Supervisor, politely explaining that the court was required by law to accept my filing. Again, I waited in the orange chair.
After yet another 10 minutes, two ladies emerged. “Please follow us.”
We went out into the hallway, and they introduced themselves and their titles. Because they did such a great job of helping me, I won’t reveal their names or titles. I explained my afternoon odyssey to the lady in charge, and immediately she apologized.
“I’m sorry you had to go through all that. We have a procedure for this,” she said, showing me a form that directs employees how to process a citizen-initiated complaint. “They should have known what to do.”
I looked at the form. It directed the employee to tell the compaintant to find a police officer to fill out a Uniform Citation and Complaint Form (UCCF).
Before I could speak, she said, “You need to go back over to the Justice Center and…”
“No,” I said firmly. “I’m not going back over there. There is no requirement in the law that a police officer fill out the form or that the complaint be the UCCF. All it says is that the complaint has to have the complaintant’s name and address and the defendant’s name and address and that the compaintant swear under penalty of perjury that the compaintant believes the accusations to be correct. The court is required to accept such a complaint.”
Then I noticed she was holding a copy of the statute. “Have you read it?” I asked, pointing.
I could tell that she had, and that she understood it. “OK,” she said. “But the reason we do it that way is that the forms the police carry have numbers on them that we use to assign a case number. Yours doesn’t have that and without that number, we may lose it and not be able to track what’s going on.”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“OK. … But it’s not a sworn complaint, so we can’t accept it.”
“Yes, it is. It’s the same as the form the police use. See, right here it says, ‘The undersigned swears under penalty of…’ See, I signed that? It’s a sworn statement.”
They looked at each other. “I don’t know… I don’t think that’s good enough”
“Hold up your right hand and repeat after me,” she said.
“I …um, what’s your name?”
“I, Christopher Heaps, do solemnly swear…”
“I, Christopher Heaps, do solemnly swear…”
“OK, now cross out your signature and sign it again right there.”
“Whatever you say…”
“Now you understand that if we can’t personally serve the defendant, nothing will come of this?”
“You can’t just mail it to her?”
“No, it has to be served personally. If we can’t do that, well…we can’t issue a citation.”
“So you mean that if I get a parking ticket and I just take it off my car and say I never saw it, then I can’t be fined because I can claim I wasn’t personally served?! Somehow I don’t think that’s the way it works.”
“I’m just telling you the rule, Mr. Heaps.”
“Well, I guess I’ve done all I can…”
She explained that they would process the complaint and send me a court date by mail. I thanked them and walked back across the street, only two hours and twenty minutes after I arrived.
This article was written by Christopher Heaps.