Just after noon on a slow, sunny Sunday afternoon last March, the famous Ukiah policeman, Peter Hoyle, was sitting in his patrol car at 1040 North State Street. Officer Hoyle was monitoring passing traffic with a handheld radar device.
The 1000 block of North State Street generates a lot of speeding ticket money for Ukiah. Or did generate a lot of speeding ticket money for Ukiah until Officer Hoyle encountered, on that fine March day, a formidably tenacious former Ukiahan named Richard Steven Ahl.
Officer Hoyle is formidably tenacious in his own truculent way.
The Hoyle-Ahl encounter reverberates a year later, and Ukiah remains unaware of the bad news resulting from it.
Depending on who you ask, Hoyle (1) does his job professionally, (2) does his job with a little more zest than some situations seem to call for, (3) is all that stands between the good people of Ukiah and criminal anarchy, (4) is a Ukiah-sanctioned, badge-wearing psycho.
Steve Ahl is soft-spoken, logical, relentless. He's also fearless.
Before he moved to San Luis Obispo, Ahl ran a successful lumber company in Ukiah called "Ahl Forest Products." He says he'd been stopped by Hoyle before. "I told him off but he didn't give me any tickets."
Hoyle's personality, as it may or may not influence his professional conduct, isn't directly pertinent to his March 2001 ah, interface, with Mr. Ahl, but Hoyle did seem to take it personally.
Citizen Ahl chuckles as he recalls that Ukiah paralegal Sandy Hanelt offered him free assistance when she learned that he was challenging Hoyle in court over a traffic ticket, and Ahl chuckles whenever he refers to Officer Hoyle as "the pariah from Ukiah."
One can be sure that Mr. Ahl is on Hoyle's top ten list.
The day that Ahl got the contested ticket from the policeman Ahl refers to as "The pariah from Ukiah," the posted speed limit on North State where Hoyle snagged Ahl was 30 miles per hour.
Almost a year later, the speed limit on North State at the Ukiah Fairgrounds is still 30 miles per hour.
It shouldn't be, and this is why it shouldn't be. This is also why Ukiah may owe a whole bunch of people a whole lot of money in traffic ticket refunds.
"At 12:10 p.m.," Hoyle was to testify, "I saw a 2000 Infiniti vehicle driving southbound on State Street driving toward my location. I estimated the speed of the vehicle to be in excess of 45 miles an hour. I directed the radar at the vehicle and got the speed of 42 miles an hour when I locked on the radar. This is a 30 mile an hour speed zone."
Officer Hoyle soon had the Infiniti and its driver, Richard Steven Ahl, pulled over.
"I asked him," Hoyle recalled, "if he knew why he was stopped."
Ahl jauntily replied that he had indeed been traveling at a speed of at least 42 miles per hour.
Hoyle showed Ahl the reading on his radar gun and wrote Mr. Ahl a speeding ticket for driving 42 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone.
Hoyle then returned to his observation post at 1040 North State where he resumed monitoring passing traffic.
Hoyle soon had another motorist corralled in the parking lot of the Savings Bank. Ahl walked up and began asking the gruff policeman questions about how many people he ticketed in that area of North State in an afternoon.
"I was on a second car stop in the same location," Hoyle explained to visiting judge Frank Petersen when The People of the State of California vs. Richard Steven Ahl rolled into court three months later, "and he approached me and began questioning how many tickets I wrote today and such. Going back to my first contact with him, I saw that the driver's license he presented to me that it was required that he wear glasses; he was not wearing glasses at the time."
Hoyle was clearly annoyed by Ahl's persistence. After he finished writing a speeding ticket for the young woman he'd pulled over after Ahl, he informed Ahl that he was now adding a second violation to Ahl's speeding ticket, this one for Ahl's failure to wear his glasses while driving.
No way was Ahl sitting still for Hoyle and his North State speed trap.
Ahl launched a major research project. He looked at the traffic laws, he looked at Ukiah's application of the traffic laws, he looked at the traffic studies upon which Ukiah bases its traffic laws, he called the people at the National Motorist's Association who'd gotten the 55 miles per hour speed limits repealed.
When Ahl finally got his day in court three months later, he was far better prepared than either Hoyle or Judge Petersen, a fact that clearly annoyed both of them. "I went to court with the law that says if the speed limit is supposed to be higher than it's posted, you can't use radar to stop people for speeding. And if you stop me illegally for speeding how can you add on a fine for me not wearing my glasses?"
Judge Petersen listened, Hoyle fidgeted.
The judge, who'd had a difficult time grasping the simple math of Ahl's deconstruction of Ukiah's traffic study, and was becoming visibly weary of Ahl's corrections, soon announced in an exasperated let's-get-it-over-with voice, "I conclude that Mr. Ahl is correct and therefore I can't consider the evidence, radar evidence, as it relates to the speed on State Street."
Hoyle leaped to his feet to defend his long experience with radar, implying that he and it, in tandem, couldn't possibly be wrong; that in fact he and his radar gun were infallible. Hoyle added that if the speed limit were higher than 30 where he'd stopped Ahl on North State Street, "there would be dire consequences."
Hoyle's opinion that speeds greater than 30 mph on North State would result in vehicular mayhem is not borne out by traffic studies, including the City of Ukiah's own traffic studies.
The research indicates that when speed limits are set artificially low, there are more accidents, not fewer.
As Hoyle presented his side of his encounter with Ahl to Judge Petersen, Ahl, who obviously has a real gift for annoying authority figures and is apparently fearless besides, constantly shouted out, "Objection, your honor!"
Hoyle fumed, and the judge got mad.
Having previously said that he found Ahl's radar gun in the speed trap compelling, and that Ahl was not guilty of speeding, Judge Petersen suddenly announced, "I'm going to reverse myself. I find, based on the evidence presented today and your argument...."
That Steve Ahl was guilty of speeding! And Steve Ahl was also guilty of not wearing his glasses when his driver's license says Steve Ahl is supposed to wear glasses while Steve Ahl's driving.
The judge then cited his own demonstrably incorrect math to buttress his reversal on the speeding charge and, annoyed at Ahl's defense of himself, threw Ahl's glasses at him.
As Ahl walked out of the courtroom in a mild state of shock at Judge Petersen's imperial, mid-air reversal of himself, Officer Hoyle was smiling.
The judge probably expected Ahl to do what most wronged defendants do — disappear.
Wrong guy, judge.
Ahl went home and wrote an appeal, and the next time he appeared in the much more judicious Ukiah courtroom of Judge Cindi Mayfield, Judge Mayfield quickly found in Ahl's favor.
She had no choice; the law was clear, and Ahl's brilliantly marshaled arguments had cited the law every step of the way, and the law's the law.
Not guilty, Mr. Ahl.
Judge Mayfield told the tenacious defendant, "I just want you to know that even if the DA had shown up, we still would have found in your favor."
Ahl had prevailed. Ukiah was, and is, operating a speed trap, as speed trap is defined by state law.
The City of Ukiah seems unaware of Ahl's victory and its implications for their treasury.
Ahl makes those implications clear.
"Now that I've gone through the court process and the court's agreed with me, anybody who's gotten a ticket in that area of North State Street can go back to court and say, 'Hey! Dismiss this ticket. It's illegal'."
Ukiah has been unavailable for comment.