Justice is served: deep-fried and in a paper sleeve.
A Connecticut judge’s decision has resolved a legal quandary that stupefied some and left others flat-out hungry: Could a police officer mistake a McDonald’s hash brown for a cellphone?
In Jason Stiber’s case, the answer is “yes.” He was found not guilty Friday after successfully contesting the $300 distracted driving citation he received last year.
“It was the case of the century,” Stiber’s attorney, John Thygerson, said with a laugh. “He was quite pleased. Obviously, he was quite pleased.”
Stiber’s victory comes nearly 13 months after he was pulled over by a Westport police officer who claimed to have seen the 45-year-old using his cellphone on the morning of April 11, 2018. Stiber, representing himself in court, lost his case last year but refused to give up — telling The Washington Post on Friday that he doled out a “significant” amount of money to hire Thygerson to prove he wasn’t talking on his phone at all.
His willingness to take on the legal fees — which exceeded the cost of the ticket — was a matter of principle, he added.
“Distracted driving violations go on your record, and they never come off,” Stiber said in an interview. “Plus, a lot of people don’t realize your insurance rates go up.”
In February, Westport Police Cpl. Shawn Wong Won testified that he “clearly” saw Stiber speaking into a black cellphone while driving that morning, the Hour reported at the time. Wong Won said in court that he saw Stiber holding an illuminated object the size of a cellphone up to his face while moving his lips.
Thygerson rebutted that claim, explaining that Stiber’s lip movement was “consistent with chewing” the hash brown he had ordered at McDonald’s moments earlier. Phone records show that Stiber was not having a conversation at the time he was pulled over, Thygerson said. His client’s car also has Bluetooth capabilities that allow him to talk without holding his phone.
To bolster his defense, Stiber said he made a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain records showing Wong Won was on the 15th hour of a 16-hour double shift when he pulled Stiber over; offering another reason the officer may have confused the fried potato for a cellphone.
Ultimately, the judge concluded Friday that the state was unable to meet its burden of proof, citing a lack of evidence that shows Stiber was actually on his phone at the time he was pulled over. The Post reviewed a copy of the decision, in which the judge cited an appellate court case involving another Connecticut driver who was found not guilty in 2016 after being pulled over for using his phone.
“It just is proof that police officers — there’s nothing nefarious here — but that police officers are human and make mistakes. That’s all,” Thygerson said.
Westport Police did not immediately return a request for comment Friday evening.
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 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.”
It remains to be seen if Stiber’s case will establish new precedent in future cases. He acknowledged, though, that his tribulations have made him think twice about eating hash browns.
“I definitely haven’t eaten as many as I have previously, but I still go to McDonald’s for other things,” he said. “It’s been a long ordeal, but I’d rather avoid trouble in the future.”