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Copping an attitude

It was 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday when the judge took the bench for the incarcerable traffic docket. The doors had opened a half-hour earlier to allow the witnesses to check in.

These cases are officer-driven; generally, the officer makes a traffic stop for a traffic infraction which leads to the discovery of more serious offenses such as driving under the influence of alcohol, driving on a suspended license or driving without a license.

For the most part, officers are neutral when it comes to the outcome of their cases, leaving it in the ASAs’ hands. Many just want to make their overtime pay for court appearances and leave because they have more pressing obligations and scheduling conflicts. You win their hearts the faster you get them out of court.

Defendants often don’t realize they can go to jail for citations for driving on a suspended license or without a license. The state will often drop the charge if the defendant has no prior convictions for the same offense and if they’ve come to court with a valid license, absent some aggravating circumstance.

On rare occasions, like that Tuesday, I encounter an officer who is particularly excited about the driving suspended citation he issued. Officer Mussoll had stopped Julie Smith for speeding and discovered her license was suspended. In looking through her MVA record, Smith’s license was suspended at the time for failing to pay a ticket which she immediately corrected the day after the officer stopped her. She had no other prior infractions on her record.

By 1:30 p.m., I was well into my wheeling and dealing. I decided to give Smith the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the MVA didn’t send her notice that it was going to suspend her privilege to drive. After all, the MVA has a lot of people to account for and could have made a mistake.

So, I dropped her citation. By that time it was 1:45 p.m. and it wasn’t clear if this officer would ever show. Mussoll checked in at 1:50 p.m., and I told him what I had done as I turned to call the next case. In the corner of my eye I saw him linger as if he were waiting for an explanation.

“Why’d you drop that case?” he asked, glaring at me while gripping both hands on the table as if trying to keep them from my neck.

“Uh, she cleared up her license and she had no priors,” I said. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“State, what are we doing with the next case?” the judge asked.

I forgot for the moment I called a DUI for a plea. I took care of that and turned back to Mussoll.

“You didn’t bother talking to me first before you dropped it?” he asked.

“Look, you were supposed to be here at 1 p.m. to check in and you’re almost an hour late, so I didn’t even know if you were going to be here,” I said. “On top of that, I have about 40 cases on my table. I’m pretty good at my job, but I’m terrible at reading minds. So if there is a case you care about, you need to show up early and tell me or email me a day before the trial date.”

My voice quivered as I tried to maintain the authority in my tone.

The relationship between officer and prosecutor is in constant tension. An ASA needs an officer as much as he needs her. And cooperation with him is paramount. The way to maintain a working relationship is to clear plea offers with officers and appreciate the fact that they are risking their lives in order to maintain sanity on the streets.

Some officers cross the line and play prosecutor, negotiating plea offers with defense attorneys without any regard to evidentiary rules or substantive merit. However, when the officer fails to appear for court or appears late without prior notice, he relinquishes his control over the outcome of the case.

Mussoll stormed out of court, slamming the doors behind him. My face grew hot and I could feel it turning red. I tried to think of another way I could have handled the matter without upsetting him. I thought to wait two hours for him to get here and then ask what he wanted me to do with his case, but that would have been unfair to the defendant and her attorney.

I wondered how he could have been so angry over a dropped citation that resulted in the defendant correcting the deficiency on her license. I suddenly became hypersensitive to all the officers that checked in thereafter. I treated all of them as if they thought their citation was the crime of the century.

Officer Mitchell shook his head at the Tasmanian devil that just blew out of the courtroom.

“What’s he so upset about?” he asked rhetorically. “He just got paid three hours of overtime for walking in and then out of those doors.”

It was true! Officers were paid for three hours of overtime even if they only came in for a second. I felt relieved but then grew angrier at the thought of this officer throwing a tantrum at my expense over court time that benefited him.

As I stood idly in rage, I heard Mitchell tapping his citation booklet impatiently on the table.

“Sooo, uhh…I gotta be somewhere at two, can you nolle my case too?”


  1. Ms. Tang,
    This is great, thanks for writing it. It gives everyone a realistic perspective of what we do. Did you ever find out why the officer was so passionate about that case?

  2. Nope. But I suspect if I had had a conversation before the nolle, he would have been ok. I’ve found that communicating with them and keeping them in the loop helps.

  3. i assume that the names of the individuals in the story were changed to protect the privacy of the actual people involved. If there is a real Officer Mussoll, for example, he’s not likely to be happy about this post and your difficulties with him (and arresting officers generally), are about to get bigger. (The actual officer involved is likely to recognize himself in the story even if you have changed his name, so I expect you haven’t heard the end of this.) But more generally, this kind of interaction between police and prosecutors is commonplace in criminal courts and has been for decades. Most prosecutors take it in stride and move on (they also try to find out what was really bothering the officer). When it becomes too much to deal with, they go to shrinks (or, in Hannah Arendt’s well-known sarcasm, “soul experts”). They don’t broadcast their frustrations or hurt feelings from the rooftops to everyone in the neighborhood, in a kind of ersatz psychological exorcism.

  4. I remember when I was a young officer and a father of two. I worked 12 hour shifts on a rotating basis. I made a lot of arrests and as a radar/laser/vascar operator, I wrote a lot of tickets. That meant I had to go to court a lot. On my day off – my Sunday. In the middle of the day, I would to shower, shave, put on a uniform, get my kids ready and then push them into the car. Take them to a sitter, run to the station to collect my evidence, run to court and wait for the prosecutor to call my case. I was known as one of the good guys – Always prepared, good cases, dotted I’s, crossed T’s and a typewritten report before they ever issued laptops and really important, a great relationship with prosecutors and an understanding that they prosecute and it was their decision, not mine, what happened with a case. They valued my input, but we did not always agree on the outcome. I did not let it ruin my day. At the end of the case, I ran to the station, put away my evidence, prayed to god I did not run into a white hat and if I escaped, I ran to the sitter to pick up the kids, paid at least $50.00 and then went home and took off the uniform. The overtime did not matter to me. It was not enough for ruining my day, especially when I had to pay someone to watch my kids. I never had a problem with prosecutors – well almost never. Every now and then, a prosecutor – one like you – would ruin my day and I would be just as upset as this Mussoll fellow. You ruined my day. You could have looked at the case the week before, the day before, sometime before the 1:30 docket and realized you were going to NP the case. You could have put me on the cut list. You could have sent me an email. If you were a good prosecutor, you had my cell phone and my schedule and you would send me a text. Instead, you think that a measly 3 hours of OT should shut me up and I should be happy. With me, a prosecutor never did that twice. We would have an understanding very quickly. But MOST IMPORTANTLY, we would never have made a public issue out of it. You do not know why he is mad, but you feel compelled to tell the world how much this officer is a jerk. I hope this is not his real name. You add insult with your little cartoon. The officer did not demand that you respect his authority. The officer demanded that you give him just a little courtesy and respect. If we can’t get that from prosecutors, then who are we going to get that from? You should reach out to this officer, figure it out and retract this ridiculous posting. Personally, I would be ashamed to have written such a thing and the DR should be just as embarrassed. Shame on you.

  5. AJ: WHY are you jumping on Tang? Just as the defendants have to be @ court 30min early, so do the officers. Tang wasnt wrong.

  6. AJ, i’ve had the privilege of watching Ms. Tang roll through heavy dockets on a daily basis and must say that her post was appropriate. You do not understand how large these ASA’s dockets can be and the onus is on the officer to be on time or give prior notice (otherwise dockets would end at 7PM instead of 3PM). If the officer is late, it’s his fault. Period.

  7. Ms. Tang,
    This is great, thanks for writing it. Communication is key.