Rod MacIver had a lot on his mind when he was stopped for running a red light on Route 7 in Shelburne last December. The painter and writer was preparing to open Heron Dance Wild Nature Art Gallery in Winooski, and his latest book — a collection of his artwork he had spent thousands of dollars producing — would roll off the press any week.
“The project was months late, and the work that I had seen was unsatisfactory,” MacIver said last weekend, recalling the cause of his short temper that winter night. “I was definitely not in a mood to be pushed around by anybody, including a police officer.”
So when Shelburne Officer Jason Lawton did pull him over just past midnight, MacIver’s reaction was less wild heron than cornered wolverine.
“As far as I know I’ve never gone through a red light in my life,” MacIver protested to Lawton, who said MacIver had also drifted across the white line. When the cop insisted, MacIver yelled, “Yeah. Well, I think you’re completely out to lunch. What are you doing, smoking pot or something?” before telling the officer to ticket him so he could appear before a judge.
That interaction, captured on the video camera in Lawton’s cruiser, wouldn’t endear MacIver to the Shelburne Police Department. After filing a complaint against Lawton at the police station that night, the artist received a call the next day from Sgt. Allen Fortin, who said the video showed his violation.
“So please feel free to contest the ticket,” Fortin wrote in a subsequent email, a version of which MacIver has copied to a website he created about the incident. “I would like the Judge to see your actions at the time of the stop and see what we have to deal with.”
MacIver apologized to Fortin for his rant but nonetheless requested a copy of the cruiser cam video of his stop. The footage turned out to be a game-changer. It showed Officer Lawton had been waiting to turn south when MacIver’s truck passed through the Allen Road intersection — under a yellow light. The video revealed no signs of weaving by MacIver in the mile and a half Lawton followed him before activating his siren.
On March 6, MacIver went to court to contest the ticket. Before the judge emerged, Officer Lawton invited MacIver outside the courtroom, where he offered to dismiss the charge. MacIver refused, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear from the court transcript (which is also viewable on MacIver’s website), the officer nevertheless began his testimony a few minutes later by recounting that he observed MacIver run the red light.
When MacIver got his chance to cross-examine the cop, he showed the cruiser video. Judge Howard Kalfus questioned why Lawton had just testified under oath that the light had turned red.
“I testified to what I saw that night. I didn’t — the opportunity had not come up to explain the discrepancy within the video,” Lawton said, adding that he had offered to dismiss the charge before the hearing began.
“I understand that you were willing to dismiss,” the judge replied, “but I’ve got grave concerns about the fact that you didn’t tell me that you were willing to dismiss because you later saw the video and saw that you were wrong.”
The judge ultimately dismissed the ticket, but MacIver has since filed a small claim against the town of Shelburne to recoup $2000 for his time and expenses. In light of the misinformation provided by police, MacIver is also requesting that the town amend its police complaint follow-up procedure. The trial is Friday at 10:30 a.m. in Chittenden Superior Court.
“What I wanted was some kind of an understanding where all complaints would be forwarded automatically to the town manager, and an acknowledgement that there may be a problem,” MacIver said over a beer in Muddy Waters, a block away from the courthouse where he will present his case. “These people need to be carefully supervised, not in a way to discourage people from pulling people over who do real things.”
Although both Fortin and Lawton will testify as witnesses on Friday, neither would comment until after the trial, at the request of Shelburne town manager Paul Bohne.
“The only thing I’ll say is that I consider his case an aberration,” Bohne said, declining to discuss any specifics of MacIver’s situation. “He’s trying to paint the department in one brush, and I don’t believe that at all. I think we’re dealing with a rookie police officer.”
As MacIver was preparing his claim, Bohne sent him a note of apology, explaining that he wasn’t proud of the discrepancies in the accounts provided by Fortin and Lawton; the latter has been on the force for about a year. But Bohne added, “The transcript of the testimony is clear that Officer Lawton did not lie under oath, did not commit perjury and did not commit a felony. It is clear that Officer Lawton separated what he thought that he saw that night from what the video showed.”
Speaking last week, Bohne estimated that the police department normally receives three to four complaints a year. “Generally we invite people to come in and review the complaints,” the town manager explains. “If there is a video, we review it. We actually get compliments from people we’ve stopped.”
MacIver isn’t one of those. The 56-year-old is suing Shelburne PD the same way he’s sued more than a dozen parties over the years: representing himself in court. MacIver ran a small investment advisory firm on Wall Street before he left finance for a more solitary life in the Adirondacks.
That was the setting for one of MacIver’s more stunning legal victories. After moving upstate, he started getting mysterious phone bills. When New York Telephone Company refused to rescind the charges, MacIver sued them for collecting a debt he didn’t owe. The judge dismissed his claim, but MacIver went further, issuing a writ of execution against the phone company. It finally relented: In exchange for MacIver not filing the writ, the phone company offered to provide legal services against the third party that was committing the fraud.
The transgressor turned out to be a Miami-based set of horoscope and phone sex hotlines and an unknown customer who used MacIver’s phone number to purchase those services. After six years of litigation against Crown Communications and its executives, MacIver ended up on the receiving end of a $32,000 settlement, $10,000 of which went to the phone company’s attorney. MacIver also tipped off the Federal Trade Commission, whose action against the same company resulted in a $210,000 settlement — none of which went to the Vermont artist.
But MacIver isn’t so confident about his small claim against Shelburne. MacIver wondered aloud whether the judge would throw his case out. If that happens, MacIver said he’d consider a civil lawsuit against the town, though he admitted that could take months or years to resolve.
So is this about revenge?
“I hope not. Sometimes when you get deep into these things, it’s hard to tell,” he responded.
Is it worth it?
“Many times I’ve thought I should just drop it and forget about it,” said MacIver, whose Winooski gallery recently closed down. “But it’s like these people are so used to lying and dishonesty that it’s automatic with them — like the default is dishonest.”
“And I’m just in a mood to challenge it.”