Witness: Officer Drove Recklessly; Judge: Cyclist Probably Had Road Rage

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James Liu.

According to a witness, an off-duty police officer swerved in and out of traffic while chasing cyclist James Liu, driving in a “really dangerous” manner. However, at a hearing yesterday, Judge George Berbas upheld a charge of disorderly conduct against Liu. Berbas argued it was likely that the bike rider – not the officer – was guilty of road rage.

The incident occurred on October 14, around 8:15 a.m., when Liu, 33, was bicycling downtown on Milwaukee Avenue to his job as a bankruptcy attorney. After he turned south on Desplaines Street, he says, the driver of a silver SUV started edging into the Desplaines bike lane as he tried to illegally pass other vehicles on the right. Liu says the motorist was getting too close for comfort, so he knocked twice on the door of his truck to alert him of his presence.

Unfortunately for Liu, the driver was Officer Paul Woods, from the traffic administration department, who was also on his way to work. The attorney says Woods immediately began chasing him in the bike lane, then rolled down his window and yelled, “I’m a f—ing cop.”

UIC associate professor Rachel Havrelock was driving her daughter to school at the time. “I saw the SUV driver swerving in and out of traffic and he seemed to be going after the cyclist,” Havrelock told me. After Liu changed lanes to head east on Washington Street, Havrelock says Woods swerved across two lanes of southbound Desplaines to blockade the cyclist’s path. “I was very shocked by what I saw,” she said.

Woods then handcuffed Liu, called for backup, and had the attorney transported to a police station. Liu was ultimately charged with disorderly conduct.

At yesterday’s administrative hearing, Liu reiterated that he knocked on the SUV because Woods was driving in the bike lane, DNAinfo reported. However, the officer testified that he was stopped in traffic when the attorney banged on his vehicle and was not driving in the bike lane. He added that he was taken aback by Liu’s action, and that the attorney also extended a middle finger at him.

Liu told me today that it’s possible he did flip the officer the bird at some point during the incident, although he doesn’t recall doing so. However, he repeated that the SUV was moving towards him in the bike lane when he knocked on it, not stationary.

In finding Liu guilty of disorderly conduct, Judge Berbas asserted that the cyclist probably knocked on the SUV due to road rage or “overreaction to a traffic situation,” DNA reported. “If a Chicago police officer is in uniform on his way to work, he really just wants to get to work, check in and do his job,” Berbas said. “I don’t think that while in his personal vehicle he’s going to be looking to instigate or start anything.”

Liu told me the judge’s logic is flawed. “His statement seems to imply that an attorney who is just riding his bike to work is looking to start something,” Liu added. “What’s my motivation?”

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Woods used his SUV to blockade Liu, then handcuffed him. Photo: Ben Raines

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke had a similar response to Berbas’ ruling. “How often have you seen a person on a bike or a pedestrian randomly pounding on a car?” he said. “It sounds like this was a case where Liu was at risk and needed to get the driver’s attention. The officer should have realized he made a mistake by driving in the bike lane and moved on, and it seems that the judge should have thrown out the case.”

An officer from Police News Affairs declined to comment on the outcome of the hearing.

Berbas ordered Liu to pay $290 in fines and court fees. The attorney says he didn’t retain another lawyer for the hearing because there was only a potential fine of $500. He plans to appeal the judge’s decision.

In fairness, Berbas can’t be blamed for being unaware that a third-party witness says Woods was driving dangerously when he chased Liu, since the cyclist didn’t ask Havrelock to testify at the hearing. Liu told me that, since Havrelock didn’t see him knock on Woods’ vehicle, only the aftermath, her testimony didn’t seem relevant for defending himself against the disorderly conduct charge.

Liu has retained the civil rights firm Loevy and Loevy for a future lawsuit against Woods, and he plans to enlist Havrelock as a witness for the suit. “Rachel’s testimony will be helpful for the civil rights lawsuit, because that has to do with how the officer reacted after the tapping, not what I did,” he said.

The attorney told me he’s been more cautious about interacting with the police since the incident, but he still rides his bike to work. “What am I going to do, buy a car?”

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  • I mean, obviously I’m coming from a biased position, but the implicit assumption from the judge that “well, a police officer is obviously just trying to get to work, but a cyclist, well they’re obviously the ones trying to create trouble”. Its possible the cyclist overreacted, but if you believe that the officer didn’t, its more police protectionism 100% clear.

  • tooter turtle

    Remember this judge at election time, please.

  • Jeremy

    I wonder if this is the same George Berbas. From a 1/24/02 Tribune article:

    “In the fall of 1997, just before the trial was set to begin–and long
    after the deadline for disclosing evidence–Assistant State’s Attys.
    George Berbas and Kent Sinson revealed to the defense for the first time
    the existence of Lipscomb-Bey’s statements to the detectives.

    “Calling the statements “key evidence,” the prosecutors said at first that they had learned of the statement a week before the trial–then amended that to say they had learned of it just one day before the trial.

    “But in the trial, another prosecutor, Kevin Gleason, testified that he had
    learned of the statement the day after Lipscomb-Bey was arrested, more
    than seven months before the trial.”

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2002-01-24/news/0201240031_1_murder-charge-prosecutors-key-evidence

  • Dingus

    “If a Chicago police officer is in uniform on his way to work, he really just wants to get to work, check in and do his job,” Berbas said. “I don’t think that while in his personal vehicle he’s going to be looking to instigate or start anything.”

    Like the time I was biking on Elston, and a Chicago cop wanted to use the bike lane, because he was tired of waiting in traffic. He was actually driving in the bike lane honking at me. I stopped and he got out of his car and proceed to yell hysterically at me that bikes have to yield to cars, even in the bike lane. Other drivers had started to follow his lead and were waiting behind him in the bike lane for me to move my bike out of their way so they could all use the bike lane (this was before the protected lanes on Elston). Cops on their way to work can most certainly be looking to instigate/start something.

  • Lisa Curcio

    He is an administrative law judge and is not elected.

  • kastigar

    OK, then who appointed him?

  • kastigar

    This is a common occurrence, and dangerous to cyclists: cars move into the right lane to pass cars on the left, either because they’re turning left or perceived as driving too slowly.

    This threat is as serious as dooring.

  • Info: https://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/ah/supp_info/administrative_lawjudges.html

    “What is an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)?

    A: The ALJ is the person who conducts the administrative hearing and decides whether a municipal code violation has occurred and, if so, what penalty should be imposed. The Department of Administrative Hearings contracts with approximately 80 administrative law judges to conduct hearings in three facilities located throughout the City of Chicago. Administrative Law Judges are private attorneys who have been licensed to practice law in the State of Illinois for a minimum of 3 years. They are *not* employees of the City of Chicago.”

  • I could not agree more. And the City of Chicago is IMO fully complicit thanks to the unwritten custom of allowing drivers to exploit the “rush hour parking controls” as if that space was a de facto lane. Lanes require physical marking to demarcate where they start and stop.

  • Parking lanes with rush hour parking controls are de jure travel lanes during rush hours — it’s legal to drive in them. Whether RHPCs are a good policy is another issue. For example, the existence of RHPCs has been a factor in why streets like North Avenue in Wicker Park don’t have bike lanes.

  • The RHPCs have been removed from North Avenue between Western Avenue and Damen Avenue, and perhaps further east, as of 2013, yet there are still no bike lanes here!

  • kastigar

    OK, then who hires them? Who selects them? Where do they get their paychecks from?

  • Can you prove they are legal to drive in? Because when I sent Gabe Klein asking for the applicable rules he conceded it was a gray area and then cc’d a dozen CDOT staff asking them for help and not one of them had an answer. I still have the email.

  • Curtis James

    Hearing officers are hired by the city the same way the city hires everybody else: based on who they know.

  • To be fair, a really depressing number (well over 50%) of all people hired by all workplaces are hired because they have a connection where they’re applying that got their resume looked at. Just sending an application when you have no in at the company has a really, really high failure rate.

  • tooter turtle

    I’ve had a cop (in his personal car) scream at me for taking the lane. I was riding on very congested Broadway, behind a bus that was going walking speed. There was no room to pass. He lectured me about keeping to the right. His face was red and I feared he was about to either have a stroke or kill me, so I fell in behind his car. He felt much better with me behind him, going walking speed, than when he was behind me. Drivers are like that. Even cops.

  • Probably the fact that this is an IDOT-jurisdiction road is a factor.

  • Haven’t found relevant legislation online, but back when I worked at CDOT, I was told that the purpose of RHPCs is to create additional travel lanes during rush hours. Otherwise, what purpose would banning parking during rush hours serve? Of course, there are usually a few drivers who miss the memo about not parking in the lanes, which defeats the purpose to some extent.

  • No parking signage is ubiquitous across the city for all kinds of reasons. The first time I saw these signs in play was on Sheridan road, and they worked well at alleviating gridlock caused by the disruption of cars parking, which forces traffic to grind to a halt while a driver backs into a spot.

    Temporary lanes aka reversibles that are legit look like what they’ve done up where LSD ends at Hollywood. Clearly signed, and most importantly, clear pavement striping showing where one lane ends and another begins. The so-called rush hour lanes just create space for illegal passing on the right; regardless of how many people do it – they don’t go through intersections and usually would infringe on right turn and bus only lanes.

    Wishful thinking by CDOT. If they want to create legit rush hour lanes they will need to do a lot better that slap no parking signs up around town, if I as a cyclist get hit by a driver using the side of the road to weave around traffic I will be suing the City into the Stone Age.

  • tooter turtle

    In my experience, police don’t know the rules of the road any better than the general populace. They also have the same attitude as the general populace (i.e., f*ck pedestrians and cyclists). But they’re no worse than the general populace.

  • Forgot the other main reason – having daily no parking hours means that arterial streets get regular turnover and do not get used for long term parking.

  • cjlane

    “a really depressing number (well over 50%) of all people hired by all workplaces are hired because they have a connection”

    It’s depressing that knowing people at a business or in an industry is a positive in hiring?

    I’ve gotten a job because I “knew” (that is, was in class taught by) an adjunct professor who worked for the company, and another because I “knew” (from working with on a project) a soon-to-be fellow employee who mentioned the opening.

    Unless you can distill the “depressing number” down to only those whose connection is (1) nepotism, or (2) a called in chit, or (3) something actually nefarious, then I think you are sullying entirely normal ‘networking’.

  • cjlane

    “its more police protectionism 100%”

    Um, yeah, of course it is. Did anyone actually think that this was going to turn out another way? Witnesses or not? The cops’ versions get believed when there is *video* and actual injuries, like this one:

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-05-19/news/ct-met-jefferson-tap-verdict-0519-20120519_1_officers-gregory-barnes-jeffery-planey-west-loop-bar

    The yelling “I’m a cop” (or whatever) was like a big dog growling–it was a signal to back the F off, or something bad will happen to you.

    Is that ok? Of course not. But if you don’t expect that from interactions with (some) cops, then you aren’t paying attention. That the cops who *aren’t* like that always back up the ones that are is the real problem, imo.

  • I intended to sully “entirely normal” networking, because it means a lot of qualified people who don’t happen to know someone at that company have no chance of being hired.

    This is disproportionately a problem for people who are not white, not middle-upper class, and didn’t go to “the right schools”, and keeps a lot of companies from actually getting the most effective, best-qualified workforce possible.

    Also, it is absolutely no different than what happens in city and state hiring here — but people look at the city and scream “corruption!” and look at the private sector and say reasonably, “Oh, that’s just looking for a good fit,” when the exact same behavior occurs.

  • cjlane

    ” it is absolutely no different than what happens in city and state hiring ”

    Uh, yeah, it is, as the city and state hiring (1) is being done “for the people”, and (2) is usually restricted (and even banned) by ordinance/law. Those facts are elided by most who make that point, but are important distinctions from private hiring.

    “keeps a lot of companies from actually getting the most effective, best-qualified workforce possible”

    If this is true (and it certainly is in many cases), then the companies are being punished for their employees’ narrow-mindedness.

  • Alex

    If you see someone driving like an a-hole, dangerously weaving, 95% it’s a cop. What’s especially pathetic is that tax eater in robe is ruling for tax eater in blue.

  • Alex

    Right, it’s only Tax Eater in Blue who “just wants to get to work, check in and do his job.”
    The rest of us, regular people, tax payers, mandanes, we don’t just want to get to work, check in, and do our jobs…

  • Alex

    Unbelievalble! George Berbas should be in jail for kidnapping and caging an innocent (as Berbas was full aware) person!

  • Andrew

    Does anyone know if there’s an update to this story?

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