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Monday, May 10, 2002

Court of Ill Repute

A tale of litter and litigation

By Dennis Francis Lawlor

There I was, on April 30, at the local community dispute panel in the Excelsior.

I had been arrested for battery after reprimanding an apparently unenlightened newcomer to our fine burg for unwrapping her daughter’s Popsicle in front of our house and tossing the wrapper at our feet. I handed the offending wrapper back to her while suggesting she set an example for her child. She promptly walked several feet, cursing me. Then, to my amazement, she again tossed the wrapper into the wind.

My response, although louder and more animated, was in no way violent, and she most certainly was not intimidated, as she cursed me and my friends in Spanish and broken English.

As I returned to the house, one of the teachers from the school that the mother and daughter had just left came walking toward me. I asked her if she was aware of the sale of products literally outside the schoolgates which could be seen littering the streets in its proximity. She mumbled something about that being the parents’ responsibility and continued walking as I stood dumbfounded.

Fifteen minutes later, two police cars barreled up to the house. As we stood inside the basement, the police pointed to me and told me to get on the ground.

After questioning my friends, who told the officers that I had made no contact whatsoever with the young woman, they loaded me into the squad car to deliver me to Ingleside Station.

As I sat in the station awaiting some semblance of sanity from someone in blue, I was told that in fact a second woman (the teacher) had phoned them to report the screaming maniac who had thrown a beer can at her. He apparently missed but spilled some of the beer on her, prompting my second charge of battery against a woman in the last half hour.

The citing officer seemed genuinely sympathetic but, with orders from his captain, charged me with the two separate counts of battery. I was cited and released within a half hour.

So there I was at the Bayview Bank building, as I had agreed to have the condemnation heard by members of our community. Surely, they would see the lunacy involved and inquire as to my detailed account of the events that day.

As I entered the room, the members of the panel rose and introduced themselves. I mentioned that I thought this to be a fine and progressive way to handle such court-bogging incidents and that their participation was to be commended.

The officer present read the police report out loud and stated the charges. I was then prompted to read my own handwritten statement to the panel. When I was nearing the end of my brief but sarcastic description of the charges I faced, the chairman stopped me, saying, “How much longer do we have to listen to this?” Strangely enough, I had been listing my many community involvements at the time. I was not offered the opportunity to finish my statement or to question this obvious breach of protocol.

The panel’s questions were accusatory and inflammatory. “Had it been a man, would you have done the same?”

I was explaining my prior professional boxing experience when I was again interrupted with a panelist asking, “So violence would be an alternative?”

“No,” I stated. “But being neither a bully nor a coward, I would not be intimidated by any such offender, regardless of gender, race, or girth.”

Another panelist asked the officer present if the alleged tossed beer can had been recovered.

I had already explained that I was returning to the house from the confrontation with the young woman and held nothing in my hands. Nor had I been drinking. The officer confirmed that my coherency was not even questioned by the arresting officers and that I had been released immediately upon citation. No can of any kind had been submitted as evidence. I finished by stating that any community service given as punishment should be directed to those, like the young woman litterer, who might consider cleaning the city streets as punishment. Since I pick up trash while standing at the bus stop, as others stare in amazement, I was still hoping that the panel of supposedly compassionate and deliberate local folk would dismiss these seemingly insane allegations. I was then asked to leave the room while the panel came to a decision.

Upon my return, the chairman asked about my employment or lack of it. (Too much time on my hands?) I explained my pending workers compensation and thus my inability to perform community service.

As I had predicted, “anger management” was offered as an alternative. I said I would, upon the completion of a civil etiquette class attended by the young mother. Perhaps even an anger management class, as her daughter had an obvious and recent black eye on the day I was arrested. Both my friends and I had questioned officers that afternoon on the condition of the child and asked if they had inquired about the cause of the contusion. No response was forthcoming.

My case has since been resubmitted to the DA’s office, as I refused the invitation to learn how to sit quietly while our city is further ruined. I do not look forward to spending more time defending myself against these humiliating charges, but at least this time I will not be prejudged and will be treated with respect by the court. This panel of my alleged peers offered no such luxury. Thanks for nothing, “neighbor.”

Dennis Lawlor is a delegate to the San Francisco Building Trades Council (Painters Local #4) and former financial and recording secretaries for Panters Local #4. He is a member of the Citizens Lead Poisoning Prevention Advisory Committee, Pacific Heights Residents Association, Friends of Webster Street Historic District, Ocean Beach Historical Society, San Francisco Beautiful, Church of St. John Coltrane, and Northern California Veteran Boxer Association. He regularly volunteers at Laguna Honda Hospital and Juvenile Hall.