Martin Bennett would have grudgingly accepted a ticket when he was arrested two years ago for reckless driving.
That misdemeanor charge since has been reduced to a $47 traffic infraction, but Bennett is not about to let the incident drop.
Bennett filed a small claims complaint against Coeur d’Alene police Officer Gary Hayes last month accusing him of lying about the incident. He is seeking $3,000 in damages from Hayes.
“He lied to his superiors. He lied in the courtroom,” Bennett said during a recent interview. “They caught him in a lie.”
The 34-year-old St. Regis, Mont., man said Hayes made an obscene gesture and tried to run him off the road. Hayes was off duty during the Feb. 21, 1996, encounter on U.S. Highway 95.
“I was going to report him as a drunk driver, and I got thrown in jail,” Bennett said.
Hayes, a 17-year Coeur d’Alene police veteran, admitted making the gesture out of frustration. But he said he never lied and stands by his police report and court testimony.
Differing accounts are common between arresting officers and suspects, Hayes said.
“It’s not something I worry about,” Hayes said during a recent interview. “It’s a hazard of being a police officer.”
The incident happened on U.S. Highway 95 at its junction with state Highway 53 north of Coeur d’Alene.
Hayes said he started to pull his car to the right to allow a red pickup following closely to pass. That’s when Hayes noticed Bennett’s pickup was passing on the right in a merge lane, according to court records.
The maneuver forced Hayes to move left as far as he could without crossing into oncoming traffic, the officer said. At one point, Hayes said he had to cross the highway’s dividing line.
Bennett looked right at Hayes while passing him, the officer testified. An angry Hayes responded by flipping him off.
Hayes then called dispatchers on his cellular telephone and asked them to have a Kootenai County sheriff’s deputy stop Bennett. A deputy pulled Bennett over several miles later, and Hayes arrested Bennett for reckless driving.
“If they’d have written me a $47 ticket, I’d have paid it,” Bennett said. “I’d have walked away.”
Instead, Bennett said Hayes lied on his report about the incident. The wildlife art salesman said he was the one victimized by a reckless driver.
Bennett said he panicked when Hayes gestured at him. He gunned his pickup trying to put some distance between himself and Hayes.
“When the guy gave me the finger and started digging for something, I thought he was going for a gun,” Bennett said.
Bennett made a formal complaint to the Coeur d’Alene Police Department about Hayes’ report and gesture. Police Chief Dave Scates and Lt. Ron Hotchkiss, who investigated Bennett’s complaint, said state law prevents them from commenting on how the situation was resolved.
Scates did say, however, that obscene gestures made by officers on or off duty, if proved, would constitute conduct unbecoming an officer.
“There’s still a standard of conduct expected for a person who may identify themselves later as a police officer,” Scates said.
Department penalties for conduct unbecoming range from a verbal reprimand to suspension, depending on the incident and the offender’s background, Scates said.
Hayes said he passed a lie-detector test that affirmed his account of the incident. He would not comment further about the internal investigation.
The damage figure Bennett is seeking represents the money he lost while spending a day in jail and compensation for stress, he said.
“He gave me the finger and tried to bump me off the road,” Bennett said.
A couple, who witnessed the incident and testified at Bennett’s traffic infraction hearing, backed the man’s account that Hayes was driving recklessly. Hayes denied that he sped up or did anything else to stop Bennett from passing.
Bennett said he chose to take his complaint against Hayes to small claims court to hold the officer directly responsible. Filing a claim in district or federal court could have unnecessarily dragged the rest of the police department - against which Bennett holds no grudge - into the fray, he said.
“I don’t feel right about them having to pay for somebody else’s screw-up,” Bennett said.
Hayes said he plans to ask a judge to dismiss Bennett’s claim.
“To me, it’s just a harassment thing,” Hayes said.
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