By Kathryn Wood and Linhchi Nguyen
SACRAMENTO – Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Tami R. Bogert Friday noted that an officer in a traffic case could be wrong—as long as the false judgment is reasonable.
So even though private defense attorney Martin Tejeda made a telling argument that an officer could have been wrong in judging that his client, defendant Jim Wong, used high beam lights illegally, Judge Bogert ruled against him.
Wong was contesting evidence claiming he projected his high beams into the eyes of a highway patrol officer, with defense attorney Tejeda arguing the officer relied merely on his subjective observation on whether the high beams were used.
But, despite his argument, Judge Tami R. Bogert accepted the prosecution’s claim, ruling that the statute allows for an officer to give a false judgment so long as it is reasonable.
According to CHP Officer Utodi Madu’s testimony, he was nearly blinded by an approaching vehicle in Downtown Sacramento on Aug. 23 at around 3:20 a.m. He stated that there was an “intense white light” coming from the vehicle and remembered that he “couldn’t see anything.”
After waiting for the vehicle to turn, he followed the car and conducted a vehicle enforcement stop. The driver was defendant Wong with his friend, John Nguyen, in the passenger seat. As Madu approached the driver’s side, he said he noticed a blue indicator light on Wong’s dashboard, indicating that his high beams were on.
During cross-examination, Madu admitted that neither his body cam nor dash cam were on to capture the defendant’s act. Tejeda also asked him how Madu determined that the lights were not simply
really bright headlights given that this incident occurred at 3 a.m. with no other vehicles around.
But Madu insisted, “I think I’m a good judge of high beams and low beams. When I couldn’t see, I couldn’t see…It was that intense.”
After Madu’s testimony, Tejeda then called Wong and Nguyen to testify, and both swore that the high beams were not on and confirmed that the blue indicator light was off.
Wong claimed that he is certain that “his headlights were on,” not his high beams, because he also had his fog lights on the entire time, which would automatically turn off if he switched to his high beams. In addition, he testified that when he was pulled over, Officer Madu only told them that his lights were very bright but never brought up seeing a blue indicator light.
Nguyen said he even “glanced over at the dashboard” and made sure that Wong didn’t have his high beams on.
However, during their cross-examination, Deputy District Attorney Jordan Pitcher managed to get the duo to admit to drinking several shots of alcohol before getting into the vehicle that night. Despite this fact, Wong assured Pitcher, “At the time, I was not impaired yet because I just drank.”
Tejeda told the court that Wong is “the most knowledgeable, of all the witnesses, of the vehicle he was driving.” Wong drives the Toyota Sienna minivan and is familiar with how the blue indicator on the dashboard would be activated if his high beams were on.
On the other hand, Tejeda pointed out that Madu only relied on his subjective observations, and his only evidence was that Wong’s lights were bright and blinding.
Judge Bogert affirmed that Officer Madu did not have to be certain of whether the high beams were actually on. The purpose of a traffic enforcement stop is for an officer to investigate, even if he turned out to be wrong.
When Tejeda attempted to object about Madu’s reliability, Judge Bogert asked him, “If the intent of the statute is to prohibit high beams of light being projected into the eyes of a driver, who would be in a better position to testify?”
After a second of silence, Tejeda replied, “You have put me in a box with that question.”
The court then ruled that the prosecution met the burden to suppress the defense motion regarding the high beam violation. Judge Bogert scheduled the parties to return to court in Dept. 84 on Jan. 27 at 8:30 a.m. for further proceedings.
Kathryn Wood is a third year at UC Davis, majoring in Political Science-Public Service and minoring in Professional Writing and Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning. She is from Petaluma, California.
Linhchi Nguyen is a fourth year at UC Davis, double majoring in Political Science and English. She currently lives in Sacramento, California.
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