On December 30, 2008 at about 8:50 AM, I rear-ended a Mitsubishi Eclipse with my Dodge Durango at the eastbound intersection of 111 and 3 in Nashua, NH.
Just prior to the actual accident, I had been traveling in traffic headed for a doctor's appointment in Nashua. As I approached the light, I was watching the car ahead of me and being wary of the light changing to yellow. As we approached the intersection, we reached the point where even if the light turned yellow, we would have time to go through. The light did turn yellow, and I noticed that the car ahead of me accelerated, so I did as well. It was at this point that he applied his brakes very hard, coming to a rapid stop. Seeing as his car was a light sedan and mine was a heavy SUV, I was unable to stop before hitting his bumper. In my opinion, he must have been stopping quite quickly because the damage to his vehicle was low on the bumper, indicating it was high in the air when struck, while the main damage to my vehicle was high as well, doing more damage to the grill than the bumper.
I got out of my car and asked if he was okay, as he too had exited his vehicle and was looking at the damage to his car. He immediately stated that his neck hurt because I had hit him, yet throughout the rest of the time there, I did not see him rub his neck or indicate that it was bothering him. I contacted the Nashua Police Department via my cell phone and they also inquired if any one was hurt. I stated that the other driver had complained about neck pain, but was walking around seemingly fine.
When the police officers arrived about five minutes later they first asked if anyone was hurt. I said no, while the other driver again complained about his neck, yet strongly declined ambulance service. The officers then took statements from each of us. My interview was fairly quick as English was clearly a second language for the other driver, so I was able to listen to the police officer interview the other driver. Twice I heard the police officer interviewing him say words to the effect of, "There's no such street in Nashua." while asking him for his address.
After completing the interviews, the officers returned to their vehicles to complete their paperwork. Already I was feeling suspicious about the accident, and the thought occurred to me that I may have been set-up for an insurance claim scam. I then took out my phone to take pictures of the damage to his car. At first, I was just intent on capturing the damage to his car, but when I reviewed the events in my mind a few minutes later due to his actions then, I recalled that as soon as he saw the camera, he walked behind me so as to not be in the picture.
I returned to my car as did he, and it then occurred to me that I should also get pictures of the rest of his car in order to show what hadn't been damaged in the accident. I got out of my car, and as I aimed the camera at the driver's side of his car, he quickly exited his vehicle and said to me, "No pictures of me; no pictures of me." This struck me as quite odd and reinforced my suspicions about the "accident". Had I a more responsive camera, I would have tried to take a picture of him, but instead I merely took two side shots of the car, again noting that he studiously avoided being in front of the camera.
I again returned to my car to await the officers completion of their paperwork. A few minutes later, an officer came to my window, informed me that I was being cited for following too closely and he inquired if my car was drivable. I stated that I was pretty sure it was, so he asked me to wait until the other driver was given his paperwork, and then I could leave, which I did.
Needless to say, I wasn't in the best of moods for the rest of the day. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that the guy had deliberately caused me to rear-end him. I had 30 days to respond to the citation, and I was sure that I didn't want to admit guilt and pay the $100 fine as well as have my premiums go up next year.
Luckily, one of my daughters babysits for a lawyer and so the next time I was picking her up, I asked the lawyer friend what my chances were. After relating the story again, she told me to plead not guilty. She agreed that it sounded fishy, but she did give me this warning.
"The first person you are going to have to tell your story to is the magistrate. His job is to maximize revenue to the city/state. He will either try to get you to pay a lower fine, or talk you out of a trial. Just stick to your guns and tell your story to the judge. The worst thing that could happen is that the judge will have you pay the fine."
Greatly encouraged by this, I filled out the citation with a "Not guilty" plea and sent it in. A week or so later, I got back a notice that my court date was March 27, 2009 at 8:15 AM.
I got up bright and early on that Friday, showered and shaved, put on my suit and set off for my court date.
After the usual rigmarole with emptying pockets and passing through the metal detector, I proceeded up the stairs to Courtroom 1. There were a lot of people waiting about, but I quickly ascertained that there were 2 courtrooms on that floor, so that my wait wasn't going to be all that long.
After a brief wait, we were allowed into the courtroom. I took my seat in the second row from the front and waited while everyone else filed in. The court clerk welcomed us and proceeded to take a roll call of sorts. For the non-traffic offenses, she asked if they were present and how did they want to plea. She then simply asked the traffic offenses to state if we were present and were prepared for trial today. When my turn came, I stated that I was ready for trial.
After this, the officer magistrate started calling up the traffic offenses and was asking them how they intended to proceed. Naturally, I was first.
"So, let's see, you... you rear-ended someone and you're pleading not guilty?"
"Well, due to the other guy's behavior's at the scene of the accident, I believe that he braked hard deliberately to cause the accident."
"But you rear-ended him."
"We were both approaching an intersection when the light turned yellow..."
"You rear-ended him at a red stop-light."
"When the light turned yellow, we both clearly had time to make it through the light and at first he accelerated when..."
"But you rear-ended him."
I stopped replying.
"Look, if you really want to, you can go to trial with this, but you did rear-end the guy. If the judge finds against you, he can not only suspend your license, but he can also impose a fine of up to $1000."
I thought to myself, "Really?" but I replied, "I just want to tell my story to the judge."
"Okay..." He rolled his eyes. "We'll have to call in the officer who responded so he can testify. When he gets here, we'll call your case."
"How long might that be?"
"Okay, thank you."
After all the administrative details were attended to, the court settled down and the judge entered. After the "All rise..." the judge called the first case to the podium. It was a young black man in his mid-twenties wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and easily $120 sneakers. The judge asked him if he had the remainder of his fine. He replied that he did not. The judge wasn't happy.
"Now, you knew that you weren't supposed to do that; it was posted on that sign that you admitted to seeing, and you did it anyway. If you don't have the $50 this time, I'm going to have to take you into custody." The young man again indicated that he didn't have the money.
"Bailiff; take him into custody. Nine days in jail."
Nine days in jail for $50? Have I done the right thing here? Is this guy a hanging judge?
After a few more cases, the judge called for a recess. I tried distract myself by listening in to a lawyer behind me both counseling and consoling her client.
"It's for the best; he's not a beneficial influence on your child. You need to move along with your life. I know it's going to be hard, but you'll get through this. If you stay with him, he'll only move on to hurting your son as well as you..."
I said to myself, "The judge has got to know what kinds of cases are in his courtroom today. Is he going to have any sympathy for a guy in a suit trying to get out of a $100 fine that he's clearly guilty of? Not that I'm making this up, but surely there's a chance he might see it that way. Maybe the suit was a bad idea."
Just about then, the patrolman arrived and approached the magistrate. They spoke briefly, with the magistrate gesturing vaguely in my direction with the copy of my citation. The patrolman glanced briefly at me, shrugged his shoulders and took the report from the magistrate and sat down to study it.
About 15 minutes later, the court clerk announced "All rise" and the judge re-entered the court. They dealt with one more case and then called my name. I stepped forward to the defendant's table and the judge indicated that I should sit. The patrolman approached the witness stand and was sworn in by the judge.
"Okay," said the judge. "What happened?"
After reciting his name and rank, the patrolman started to testify as to the particulars of the accident. "On December 30th 2008, I responded to a traffic accident at 8:52 AM...". Everything was exactly accurate. I noticed that the judge was watching me during the recitation, and I found myself nodding in agreement to the details. I did smirk once when the patrolman indicated that I was in the courtroom by describing me as, "the gentleman seated at the defendant's table with a brightly colored tie". When the patrolman finished, he was dismissed by the judge and returned to the prosecutor's table.
The judge looked at me. "Do you wish to testify?"
"I just want to give my impressions of what happened at the accident scene that leads me to believe that this was done to me on purpose."
With a little grin, the judge responded, "So you want to testify." It wasn't a question.
"Yes. Sorry, I've never done this before."
He gestured at me to approach the witness stand, so I did.
"Do you swear that the testimony that you are about to give is the truth and nothing but the truth?"
So I proceeded to tell the story much as I described it above. The judge listened carefully, and seemed to make up his mind when I got to the "My neck, my neck" part, and interrupted me.
"Okay, I think we get the idea here."
"But there is one more part that occurred that really made this seem very odd to me that I would really like to get on the record."
"Okay, but make it brief."
"When I realized that I might be the victim of an insurance scam, I thought to get my camera out and take pictures of the damaged and undamaged parts of his car. When he saw the camera, he quickly exited his car and shouted at me, 'No pictures of me; no pictures of me', and that was biggest part of this whole situation that struck me as quite odd."
"Yes; I would agree. That is very odd to me as well." He gestured at me to return to me seat at the defendant's table.
"Seeing as the officer could only testify as to hearsay, and given that the other man is not here in the courtroom, I find you not guilty. You are free to leave."
I wasn't quite sure I heard him right.
"Not guilty? Do I have to wait for any paperwork?"
"No, you are free to go." Both the judge and the court clerk gave me a little smile as they said this practically in unison.
I picked up my folder and left.
Now I just have to call the insurance company on Monday and see if the "Not guilty" finding will disallow them from raising my premiums next year.
I hope so.