Police Review Commission Rules Against Protest Honker By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday May 03, 2005

A Berkeley police lieutenant who ordered officers to ticket motorists who honked in support of a late night union rally last summer did not abuse his discretion, a three-member panel of the Police Review Commission ruled Thursday. 

“It was an ungodly time of the night,” reasoned PRC Commissioner William White, a member of the panel that received several letters from neighbors praising the police action. “The police weren’t trying to stifle freedom of expression, they were just trying to keep the peace.” 

The plaintiff, Carol Harris, a 51-year-old Oakland woman who received a $143 ticket for unreasonable use of horn, said she was not disappointed by the verdict. 

“I wasn’t trying to be Joan of Arc,” she said. “I just needed to sit down with these people and talk to them and have my questions answered.” 

Harris was one of nearly 40 motorists police ticketed after 11 p.m. last Aug. 27. Lt. Wesley Hester has maintained that he ordered police to enforce the state vehicle code on honking in response to neighborhood complaints about noise from a union protest outside the Claremont Hotel that lasted 27-hours. 

The law permits drivers to honk their horns only to protect their safety. 

PRC commissioners said the late hour of the honking incidents led them to conclude that Hester had not abused his discretion. 

“If this had been between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. I probably would have taken a completely different view of it,” said PRC Commissioner and retired prosecutor Jack Radisch. “People in that area were complaining bitterly. Someone in a command position had to do something about it.” 

Nevertheless, Radisch did sympathize for Harris. “If I were in her position, I probably would have thought that it was a chickenshit ticket.”  

Harris, who chose not to fight the ticket in traffic court, maintained that her free speech rights had been violated. “I believe I became a protester when I honked my horn,” she said. 

Asked what she would do the next time, she drove by a protest in Berkeley she replied, “I don’t know. I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it.”›