Planet Waves | In Propria Persona by Eric Francis


In Propria Persona

Planet Waves | By Eric Francis

Above, Lamat, from the Astrology of the Dreamspell
by Carol Burkhart

This is the story of a judicial activist -- a person who takes on the injustices of the court system within the courts themselves. His name is Christopher McGregor, and he is one of the most remarkable, gutsy and visionary men I've ever known. Though it's been nearly a decade since we met, somehow I've managed to not tell his story. Continuing this month on the theme of men during the Mars retrograde in Sagittarius, it seemed an appropriate moment to share a few of my experiences of knowing Chris.

It was one of those rare meetings. At the time Chris appeared in my life, I was banished from the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz campus, where my reporting on environmental toxins had pissed off a few public officials. I had responded by suing under the First Amendment in federal court. The whole business got a lot of press, so when Chris first saw me on a weekend morning after breakfast in the Main Street Bistro, he recognized me.

"Excuse me. You're the persona non grata. I'm honored to meet you." I looked over and there was a friendly and serious-looking man standing there with his hand graciously extended, bowing almost imperceptibly. Two adorable little kids were sitting at his table. We exchanged a few words, and he handed me his business card; he was a Ford mechanic. A few days later I called him, and heard his story. He was facing what he said were fraudulent felony charges brought by a local police department that could have sent him to jail for about 18 years. Over the next few weeks, I heard the story again and again, and began to understand it. I read his legal documents, which were typed on an old manual Smith-Corona typewriter. Slowly it started to make sense.

When his ordeal started, Chris, who owned a repair shop which sold used cars (and thus had "dealer" license plates) was in a position where a single traffic ticket cold cost him thousands of dollars each year in insurance hikes.

One day Chris got a ticket in the Town of Marlboro, New York for an "unsafe lane change." Marlboro is a place where you can drive down the wrong side of the highway most of the time and it's pretty safe, but cops get bored and they have their quotas to meet. Most people just pay their tickets, but given that a conviction would be costly, Chris decided it might make more sense to do some research into tickets. The result of this research was a short motion to dismiss the ticket on the grounds that it was an illegal charge. He submitted this motion, which properly referenced state and federal case law, to the court.

In his defense, Chris raised what is called a "jurisdictional argument." Instead of saying he didn't do something wrong (you always lose on those grounds in traffic court), he challenged the basis of the charge itself. Chris had found substantial evidence that the courts in fact lack jurisdiction to hear traffic tickets, and that the whole ticket process is basically a huge game of pretend that everyone plays (and pays) along with. He cited in his arguments both state law and the federal Supreme Court rulings; for example, both prohibited arrest for traffic tickets. If you can't be arrested and brought to court for a ticket, he reasoned, then the court must lack personal jurisdiction. Also, he discovered that a driver's license turned out to be a contract, and what was really happening when you got a ticket was more like a civil lawsuit (for violating your contract) than a criminal charge-except that this civil suit was being initiated by a cop with a gun.

"A traffic infraction is not a crime," says state law, and so the fine or jail term "shall not be considered punitive or penal in nature." You can go to jail for six months for speeding. But it's not punishment; it's a kind of vacation. Yet if a traffic infraction is not a crime, then why is it being heard in criminal court, before a criminal judge, with cops testifying?

Further, traffic tickets are the state bringing a charge against a person. But in the federal Constitution, to which all states are bound, it is written that when one party to a legal action is the state itself, then the case must be heard by the federal Supreme Court in Washington, DC. Chris mentioned this, too. His ticket was in the wrong court. He was not being a wise-ass; he was pointing to legal facts.

The judge read the motion and was infuriated, and, as it turned out, told the cops to be on the lookout for Chris's white Thunderbird. Then, one night driving through Marlboro with a broken taillight, he found himself in the presence of a whole lot of cops. It was late January and, as happened every year, the annual mass-mailing of dealer license plate registration stickers was delayed by the state. All cops and all car dealers knew about this delay every January. Charging him with a bad taillight and an "unregistered vehicle," the Marlboro cops said they were arresting him and impounding his car.

"Take that to the Supreme Court," the shift supervisor remarked to Chris, revealing that this particular cop had spoken with the judge. Chris, meanwhile, was sitting patiently in his T-Bird with his dog Buddy in the passenger seat, with a lot of financial records in the car, and knowing that the cops would be committing a crime by impounding his vehicle, documents and dog. He refused to get out of his car. The minutes wore on.

Eventually Chris's patience ran out. He drove off at about 15 miles-per-hour, made a turn down a an apple orchard's dirt road with no way out, went around a cul-de-sac-and then found himself face to face with some very angry Marlboro cops, screaming at him with their guns drawn, ordering him out of the car with his hands up. They arrested him, took him to the County Jail, and went back to the station to write their reports. The reports told a different story, of a brutal fight in the apple orchard, resulting in injuries to the police. He was charged with resisting arrest, assaulting officers, leaving the scene of a traffic stop, plus the tail light and registration tickets.

If convicted, it added up to a lot of jail time. Chris was bailed out, he bailed Buddy out of the dog pound, and went back to his research. He refused to get a lawyer. He was going to exercise his constitutional right to defend himself in court. Not represent himself in court, but to defend himself as his own person-in propria persona, in legal language. His legal paperwork, researched with the help of his brother and chess partner Kent, was so tight and so convincing, and the case against him so weak and so scandalous, that the county prosecutor's office decided to give up. They just ignored him. This is called getting your case "sandbagged". You don't win, you don't lose; it's like a stalemate. It was at this point that I met Chris.

He wanted a trial. He wanted to clear his name and clear his mind. I learned his case and started introducing him to some of the newspaper reporters I knew. The Huguenot Herald followed the story, and in his quotes, Chris repeatedly demanded his day in court.

Eventually, he got it. A visiting judge was sent down from Albany to spare local officials the potential embarrassment. The trial, in State Supreme Court, lasted a week. Chris defended himself, took part in jury selection, examined and cross-examined experts and other witnesses, and ultimately beat the state on the felony charges. Police records were inconsistent. Hospital reports had been falsified. And, miraculously, after allegedly fighting against two heavily-armed cops for several minutes in a dark orchard, Chris had sustained no injuries. He was, however, convicted of driving away from the traffic stop. He served 30 days in jail for a traffic ticket.

Was it all worth it? I haven't asked Chris lately. Most other people would say it was not. But we know for sure that it's hundreds of such cases, added up over a long history, that can staunch the spread of injustice. Hopefully. The epilogue is that last month, ruling in a traffic ticket case called Atwater vs. City of Lago Vista, the US Supreme Court held, "If an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender."

Of course, in New York a traffic infraction is not a crime. But who cares, anyway?++

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