A Connecticut man fighting a distracted driving ticket for over a year finally got it successfully dismissed in court on Friday, after hiring an attorney who presented the judge with ample evidence that he was eating a McDonald’s hash brown behind the wheel, not talking on a cellphone.
Around 6 a.m. on April 11, 2018, Jason Stiber bought breakfast at the McDonald’s drive thru in Norwalk. As he crossed into neighboring Westport he was pulled over by Westport Police Cpl. Shawn Wong Won, who issued him a $300 distracted driving traffic citation for talking on a cellphone while driving. Stiber insists, however, that he was not on his phone when the officer spotted him.
“I was eating a hash brown and he thought he saw a cellphone near my mouth,” Stiber told the The Norwalk Hour.
Stiber attempted to challenge the ticket on his own behalf before a Norwalk magistrate last August; however, he was found guilty despite presenting cellphone records showing he was not on the phone during the time of the alleged infraction.
Undeterred, Stiber requested a retrial before the state superior court. This time around, he came armed with an attorney, John Thygerson, who successfully appealed the case this February by presenting a powerful, multi-faceted defense that irrefutably showed Stiber wasn’t using his phone at the time of the incident.
According to The Times Union, the attorney cost Stiber $1,000, more than triple the fine for the ticket and the same amount as the increase in Stiber’s insurance as a result of the erroneous infraction.
During the trial, Cpl. Won testified that he saw Stiber moving his lips as he held an object resembling a cellphone to his face while driving. Stiber’s lawyer countered by saying those lip movements were “consistent with chewing” the hash brown his client purchased at a McDonald’s immediately before he was pulled over.
Stiber argued that his car is equipped with Bluetooth for hands-free calling, so he would not have needed to hold the phone to his ear if he were on a call.He also provided phone records that showed he did not make or receive any calls within the hour he was given the ticket. He even submitted the McDonald’s receipt which showed that he indeed did purchase a hash brown shortly before the citation.
Stiber and his attorney beefed up the defense’s case this time by submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to discover how tired or distracted the officer was. They found that Cpl. Won was on hour 15 of his 16-hour shift when he pulled over Stiber, offering another reason that the officer may have confused the fried potato for a cellphone.
“My argument is simple: simple human error,” Thygerson told The Washington Post. “I just think this is a classic example of the truism that cops make mistakes. They’re human beings like everyone else and sometimes they get things wrong.”
Last month, Judge Maureen Dennis ruled that the state failed to meet its burden of proof and dismissed the citation.
Stiber is relieved about the verdict but said the lengths he went to defend himself illustrate a greater problem in the justice system. He had to sit through two trials, miss four days of work and pay a lawyer $1,000 to get the outcome he wanted — painstaking steps he says others shouldn’t be forced to take.
“That’s why I did it, because I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through this,” he said. “Other people don’t have the means to defend themselves in the same way.”
Stiber said he hoped his case would set a precedent that would help others avoid the costly and time-consuming legal process he needed to go through to keep the violation off his record.