I went to trial Monday in South Carolina, on charges of a chop shop violation (carries up to five years), and got a completely unexpected directed verdict of not guilty Tuesday afternoon.
In December of 09 my client George is riding with the Hell’s Angels as a prospect (he is not “in” the club yet, and because of this incident he doesn’t get in). A SLED agent, member of the anti-gang task force, pulls him over, tells him his VIN number doesn’t look right, and then steals his motorcycle, leaving him on the side of the road.
In January 2010 George gets the agent’s number from some higher-ups in the club, calls him and asks for his bike back. Instead, the agent meets with George, tells him he thinks that George’s motorcycle frame is from a bike that was reported stolen in 06, and threatens to charge him with insurance fraud unless he becomes an informant for them. George tells them that isn’t going to happen and continues to demand his bike back.
In April, George hires me to get his bike back; I call the agent and tell him if he doesn’t give it back we are going to file suit. In May I send a letter to the agent explaining the forfeiture law and again telling him I am going to sue if he does not return the motorcycle. In June the agent gets a warrant signed for chop shop violation, an allegation that George altered, changed, etc. the VIN number on his motorcycle. Then they continue to try to get him to be an informant in exchange for dropping the case.
George built his motorcycle from the ground up – the frame is a blended harley davidson and steel stallion frame, with the VIN from the SS frame. He has receipts for every part on the bike, and when he built it the DMV sent an investigator who inspected the bike, took copies of all receipts, approved it, and issued a title.
George turned down an offer to plead to a fine. At trial their first witness is a national insurance crime bureau “expert” who testifies that there is a unique identification number stamped on the forks, that they connected to the VIN off the frame of the stolen motorcycle. But George inists that the number is on the triple tree, not the forks, it is just a part number, and the exact same number is stamped on tens of thousands of triple trees at the factory.
George has 4 triple trees in his truck that we bring in before cross, and I put them in front of the “expert” one at a time so he can read the part numbers which are all the same number. Then the expert insists that the number he was talking about is actually on the cylindrical portion of the forks, not the triple tree. Last bit of testimony before I sit down is an acknowledgement that he does not know what a triple tree is, that he does not know anything about motorcycle parts, and that he would not know a steel stallion frame if he saw one.
Next day the SLED agent testifies. During his testimony we take the jury outside to look at the motorcycle parked in front of the courthouse, and I have each of them get down on one knee, one at a time, and look under the faring where they see . . . a triple tree stamped with the exact number that the first “expert” told them is on the forks. He would not admit it, but it is a part number from the factory and it is not a unique number.
I told my client’s story through the SLED agent. The night before, we used Maren’s story-book cross and finding the witness’ story method, which worked beautifully. I felt like I knew and understood the SLED agent, and I think the jury did as well before we were done. He also admits to the jury that he doesn’t know anything about motorcycle parts.
Next witness is a surprise – the prosecutor subpoenaed the guy whose bike was stolen in 2006 (also a Hell’s Angel). When I see him in the audience during a break I introduce myself, walk outside with him, and let him know that the prosecutor is trying to pin an insurance fraud on him. Then he tells that he is a motorcycle mechanic, certified and trained by harley davidson, with a degree in motorcycle mechanics, and has worked for HD for 25 years building motorcycles. I take him to lunch and go over the case with him.
Prosecutor calls him, asks him four or five questions, then gives up and sits down. I stand up, qualify him as an expert, and then he explains in detail to the jury how you build a custom motorcycle, what a triple tree is, how the same part number is stamped on hundreds to thousands of triple trees each day as they roll out of the factory, and how you get a custom built bike legal through the DMV.
Prosecutor puts in all of the DMV documents, without the records custodian (who I had subpoenaed and waiting in the audience), and without objection from me. He is thinking he will take the sting out of my case by admitting my evidence for me. Then he rests his case.
I argue with the judge for at least an hour and a half, for a directed verdict. He does everything he can to find some evidence that would survive directed verdict, and keeps asking the prosecutor what else can he put into evidence (really? after he’s rested his case?). We have to go back and listen to the court reporter’s tapes, because the judge “remembers” testimony that never happened. Finally he grants my motion, and then apologizes to the prosecutor for granting my motion.
My client is getting his motorcycle back – the SLED agent agreed to personally deliver it to my office within 2 weeks.