For God’s Sake, Don’t Breathalyze the Judge!

(Originally published by the late lamented Earthblog.net, October 24, 2006)

Any watcher of TV shows and movies about crime, any reader of detective novels, learns one ubiquitous and eternal rule: do not kill a police officer. It’s the crime you’re guaranteed to never, ever get away with. Kill a cop and you sign your own death warrant. The brotherhood will pursue you to the ends of the earth and if, by chance, they find you already dead, they will dig up your bones and piss on them. No sir, you absolutely, positively, are not allowed to kill a cop.

Unless, of course, you are a federal judge related to the Bush family.

Last Tuesday, 38-year-old Dan Picagli, a New Haven police officer, was hit by a vehicle and died four days later from his injuries. It was 6:30 in the evening and raining, and Picagli was moonlighting for AT&T, keeping traffic away from where the utility was relocating lines prior to bridge construction.

The driver was John M. Walker Jr., who for six years has been chief judge for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to which his cousin George Herbert Walker Bush appointed him back in 1989. The judge, who has chambers in New Haven, graduated from Yale, where he now teaches. He also used to be Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, and his name comes up wherever political nepotism is discussed.

Just a few weeks ago, Walker retired and became what’s called a senior judge, which means he gets a pension equal to his last year’s salary. By “going senior” and handling 1/4th the number of cases as an active judge would, he’s eligible for all pay raises that come along. Plus, a slot opens up for his party to appoint another candidate with the appropriate political views.

Recently he was part of a six-judge, three-lawyer task force whose three-year study uncovered the astonishing fact that (gasp!) judges and lawyers engage in biased conduct. And, lucky for him, so do police officers. For instance, they do not insist on knowing whether the driver of a vehicle that has just struck down one of their fellow officers, happened to be drunk or stoned at the time.

Unbelievably, Walker was not breathalyzed at the scene, nor was his blood tested for alcohol or other drugs.

Connecticut is pretty serious about drunk driving. The legal drinking age is 21, and for younger drivers the “zero tolerance law” says they are not allowed to operate a motor vehicle with any alcohol in their system whatsoever. Connecticut is so serious about drunk driving, a person can be prosecuted for operating “under the influence” even without the evidence of any lab test. “The determining factor is whether the person’s ability to operate has been impaired,” as Connecticut DUI lawyers advise potential clients. My first thought was, wouldn’t the fact of hitting somebody be, like, a determining factor? But nobody asked me.

Even though you can be convicted of impairment on a police officer’s word, the courts prefer an objective, scientific test, and they’re so serious about it that refusing the test gets you an automatic six-month license suspension…..unless, of course, you happen to be a middle-aged white male Bushevik who is not even asked to take a test. There isn’t even any mention of Walker being invited to walk a line or touch his nose or any of those other “field sobriety” tests. Nope, this particular driver got a pass, being awarded complete assumption of innocence.

A Connecticut website, discussing the zero-tolerance approach to young drivers, notes, “drivers with low levels of alcohol may not exhibit clear cues of impairment, either while driving or after a stop.” And if that’s so for kids, how much more it holds true for grownups with years of practice in concealment. With a moribund victim down, you’d think even the soberest-looking driver would be tested.

A truckers’ website warns: “A new law in Connecticut requires any driver involved in a serious accident to submit to a breath or blood alcohol test. In addition, the provisions apply to drivers who are impaired by drugs.” The state had already required blood alcohol level testing for corpses, and the 2003 law just extended the requirement to surviving drivers “if an officer has probable cause to think they are drunk.”

So there is it. Officer discretion. The fact that the driver is a middle-aged white male is, of course, the very opposite of probable cause. It’s positive proof of innocence, and no officer in his right mind would insist on testing a middle-aged white male unless he was doing pirouettes along the center line with a lampshade for a hat. And maybe not even then, if the driver had a special Bush Dynasty ID card.

Question: Would just any middle-aged white guy who knocked down a cop be allowed to skip away? Maybe this fellow is equipped with a special don’t-go-to-jail card that says “I’m a federal judge and the first cousin of Daddy Bush.” Or perhaps he has a standard line prepared for such occasions, like, “Officer, you’d better call your boss before you do or say anything.” (Which brings up another question: have there been similar previous incidents in the life of John M. Walker Jr.?) As a conscientious officer of the court, he should have said, “Son, aren’t you forgetting something? Let’s follow the law here. What about the breathalyzer?” As a man who knew he hadn’t been doing any drugs, including alcohol, wouldn’t he have said, “Bring on the blood test”?

Walker managed to kill not just any old cop, but one of the department’s shining examples. Picagli, who overcame the handicap of a name easily rearranged into Pig-ugly, or some equally unfortunate “humorous” combination, was working this extra job to support not only his own three kids but a foster child. In his spare time he ran the Police Athletic League and mentored a high school group that advises the police chief on “youth issues.” He had worked as a school resource officer, which probably means DARE or some equally mendacious program, but hey, the kids liked him. He organized a toy drive at Christmas and took youngsters to baseball games in New York City.

Is this reminding you of one of those sentimental old black-and-white movies? It gets better. Officer Picagli took the trouble to learn Spanish in order to communicate with the Hispanics on his beat. How many police bother to do a thing like that? Normal procedure is just to take for granted that the lowlifes know the English words for “stop” and “assume the position,” and shoot them if they don’t.

Officer Picagli must have been a Good Cop. If he’d been involved in any of the things that dirty cops are prone to get involved in, his ass wouldn’t have been out there directing traffic in the rain! (By the way, since he was off-duty and working a side job, how will that affect his widow’s department pension? How will she and the kids feel, eking out an impoverished existence because their provider was snuffed by a guy with a $175,000 a year coming in?) Officer Picagli also worked with a program designed to show at-risk street kids some alternatives in life. It’s called the Weed and Seed Camp, which sounds more like a marijuana farm.

And speaking of marijuana, several states are currently trying to loosen up the laws against simple possession of small amounts by grown-ups, and several are working on medical marijuana laws. When you talk to the anti-pot people, one of their most frequent and tiresome complaints is “Then there will be more auto accidents.” So the pro-pot advocate patiently explains, “We already have plenty of laws in place against injuring people with automobiles, especially when the driver is impaired by mind-altering drugs – including alcohol.” And it’s true. We do. And my question today is, what’s the point of having such laws, when the driver of a vehicle, at the scene of an accident, where the victim is a police officer – what the hell good are those laws when that driver is not tested for the presence of substances?

According to an official spokesperson, “police did not feel it was necessary to test Walker for drugs or alcohol.” According to another, “Police have ruled out drugs and alcohol as a cause of the crash.” A neat trick, ruling out intoxication without even testing for it. The judge, they say, did not show signs of impairment (aside from the minor detail of having recently mowed down a traffic cop) and therefore was not tested for drugs or alcohol. And no charges were filed.

A New Haven Police spokesperson said officers at the scene determined that there was no reason to administer a field alcohol and drug test. I beg to differ. There were several reasons.

Reason #1 – Any time a traffic accident results in serious injury, the driver should be tested.

Reason #2 – If the driver had been young or dark-skinned or both, he or she would have been tested.

Reason #3 – If a person has to pee in a specimen cup simply to get a job that involves driving, isn’t it at least as vital to run some kind of test when a person, any person, even a white man, has just felled somebody with a damn Ford Escape?

Reason #4 – If the victim happened to die, which in this case he did within a few days, people will be reading a news report stating that the officers at the scene decided there was no reason to administer a field alcohol and drug test. How’s that going to sound? It’s going to sound just awful. But so what? It’s too late now. We can never go back to that moment in that rainy street and insist on the very same testing that would have been administered to a 20-year old black or brown motorist in the same situation.

When the unwashed masses get all uppity and start slinging around slogans like “There ain’t no justice, there’s Just Us,” this is exactly the kind of atrocity to which they refer.

Naturally, the judge drove an SUV – a wasteful, show-offy, resource hog that some activists are so offended by, they leave notes on the windshields of such vehicles suggesting that the owners have genital insufficiency issues. If I were a gambler I’d bet that, if not substance-impaired, he was talking on a cell phone at the time (which also happens to be illegal in Connecticut). If I were a screenwriter, I’d have the judge getting a blowjob at the time of the accident. After all, none of the news reports mentions whether anyone else was in the vehicle, and none says he was alone.

As long as I’m giving my fiction-writer’s imagination free rein, how about this for a plot? As a 17-year veteran of the police force, Officer Picagli would soon be eligible for retirement. Picture a movie plot where a retired judge gets restless sitting around doing even less than he used to do in his gavel-wielding days. This character is still relatively young – say, 65 – and bored with retirement. Inspiration strikes! He takes a part-time job that involves wiping out city employees who are close to collecting pensions, to ease the strain on the budget. I see James Spader as the corrupt judge and John Cusack as the investigative journalist who figures it out.

One report says the street where it happened is dimly lit, with low-hanging branches that blot out the street lights. One commentator notes that Connecticut is notorious for the lack of such amenities as flashing lights, orange cones, etc. at construction sites, and opines that if the situation were improved the police union would complain, because there go the moonlighting jobs. If such traditional warning signals were present, a paranoid person might ask if they were removed, to bolster the case for how innocently the judge blundered into a lane where – oops! there just happened to be Officer Picagli! A paranoid person might see here the preparation of grounds to sue the city, or the property owners, or the construction company, or whoever is in charge of trimming the trees and keeping the traffic signs visible. But for God’s sake, don’t anybody breathalyze the judge!

Oh boy – a team of accident reconstruction experts were out in the rain all night trying to piece together what happened. Fat lot of good that will do, when the most important fact that could be known about the incident, namely, whether the driver was chemically or otherwise impaired, can never be known. Keep those peons out there till dawn measuring skid marks and metering light sources and whatever the hell else it is they do. Call in more teams of accident reconstructionists from out of state, if necessary – make it look good! But for God’s sake, don’t anybody breathalyze the judge!

And what does the chief of police say? “A very methodical approach will be taken ……This is going to be a long investigation.” Which sounds like insider code for, “We’ll drag this thing out for years if necessary. Eventually, some day, people will forget. Meanwhile, for God’s sake, don’t take the elementary, obvious step of testing the driver for substances. Oh, right – it’s too late for that now! Ha ha!”

So Judge Walker is home and dry. As an official spokesperson says, “There’s absolutely nothing at this time to impact his ability to keep serving as a circuit judge.”

Except for being a cop killer.

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About Pat Hartman

Before publishing the two books "Call Someplace Paradise" and "Ghost Town: A Venice California Life", my main project was "Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics. " I wrote extensively for "Scene," a monthly arts and entertainment magazine with a circulation of 25,000. Also proofread, sold ads, put together the music calendar and, for a couple of years, served as editor. Presided over a couple issues of the local NORML newsletter, as well as being featured speaker at chapter meetings. Wrote a complete screenplay; collaborated on another one; worked on a couple of scripts (additional dialog and general brainstorming) with an indie film producer. Booked the talent for a large music festival. Wrote, designed, illustrated and produced various catalogs and brochures for small businesses. Spoke at a high school as a panelist on Women in the Professions; was a featured speaker at the 1991 Women in Libertarianism Conference; presented public programs on "Success in One Lesson" and "The Bloomsbury Group: What's It To Us?" Created the website VirtualVenice.info and wrote many politically-oriented pieces for Earthblog.net
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One Response to For God’s Sake, Don’t Breathalyze the Judge!

  1. John B says:

    This accident could not have been more tragic. And any serious accident, like this, probably warrants testing. But that was not this judge’s call to make. It’s probably safe to say that none of us can live up to the life of this victim. The choices he made are worthy of the highest praise. This author gets those facts exactly right and then dilutes his impact by just making stuff up. Officer Picagli’s life works deserve a piece with a more serious tone. Most judges turn down higher pay to serve the public and most are very hard working. This judge serves our country, and also travels constantly to help other nations at risk develop “rule of law.” The judge’s impact is on a global scale and he also has to deal with some of the most complex issues of our time in the financial center of the world. No, he is no better than this other public servant, but both men have been driven by a desire to leave the world better than they found it. None of us controls when our journey will end, but we can’t allow ourselves to be defined by our worst honest mistake, but instead by our best intentions and our lifelong dedication to leave the world better than we found it. Judge Walker may be no Officer Picagli, but he is still a good honest man who was involved in a tragic accident in a poorly lit region with bad weather. There were flashing lights off to the side, and I think what must have happened, as he turned his head to look at those lights, the officer stepped out to stop the car and was struck, having not been seen. I believe the lighting issue has long been a known hazard in New Haven and that many are aware that poor lighting elevates the risk of this kind of accident. The reflective vest is not visible without a source of light. Other cars reported that the lighting was poor and that the judge was driving slowly. Directing traffic is hazardous, even with a reflective vest, even when drivers are trying to be safe. It is not the fault of the officer, and while I doubt it was the fault of the driver, I can’t prove that with test results, because those on the scene thought this was an understandable mistake given the witnesses and the scene. Not negligence. While the impact of this accident can’t be made worse than it already is, I don’t think it helps all those impacted to turn this traffic accident into a conspiracy. Those who know the judge know this is nonsense, so it won’t hurt him and his, but it has to make finding closure for his friends, family and community tougher than it should be. If I agreed that being a member of the first family were truly a net advantage in life, I probably would not have kept it a secret from everyone I ever worked with, including my years in the military. So let’s just say there can be advantages and disadvantages.

    Lastly, you can’t be a judge in America without developing the deepest respect for the officers who sacrifice the most, while preserving the Bill of Rights. The police are the greatest American heros, and judges understand that as well as anyone. The nation looks up to the police, not judges and politicians, and rightly so.

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