She fought the law, and the law lost

Woman’s successful court appearance to decrease her cycling fine reveals police’s willingness to tally up infractions where possible

Megan Coogan doesn’t back down easily. So when a policeman fined her 1,700 kroner for cycling on the pavement, Coogan refused to just take the fine without question.

“It was all so sudden,” recalled Coogan. “The policeman came out of nowhere and started throwing all sorts of article violations at me. I thought I was getting arrested and having my rights read to me.”

Coogan, who is half Irish and Australian but grew up in Denmark, was charged 700kr for cycling on the pavement (article  49, section 5), but on top of that, she was also charged with ignoring traffic signs and protocol (traffic law article 4, section 1), which amounted to a total fine of 1,700 kroner. It all sounded a little extreme. 

“Yes, I did cycle on the pavement,” the 19-year-old admitted. “But I didn’t ignore any traffic signs in the area [of Ny Theatret]. Mainly because there weren’t any there. That’s when I started to question the other 1,000kr fine.”

As a result, Coogan called the police to seek further clarification as to why she had been fined 1,000kr for ignoring signs that didn’t exist. Eventually, after being put through multiple channels, Coogan was informed by the police that article four did not apply to her situation and she was advised to take the matter to court.

“That clarification gave me confidence,” she said. “So when the fine arrived in the post, I immediately called the number given to dispute the fine.”

Whether the 1,000kr fine was fair or not, a police spokesperson insisted that police, in any situation, are within their rights to fine any traffic violations without limit.

“Fines can very easily run into their thousands if multiple traffic laws are broken,” an on duty police constable explained at the HQ of Copenhagen Police. “There’s no limit to how high the total fine can go.”

Coogan, however, insisted on her innocence and was quickly given permission to take the matter to court.  After notifying the court of her appeal, she was given a time and place at Copenhagen City Court where the matter would be put before a judge within two weeks.

“Appearing in court was quite intimidating,” she said following the judgement last week on Friday. “The judge looks down at you from that high bench that lies in the middle of a big room with a record keeper on the right, and the state prosecutor on the left.”

However, the situation seemed to resolve itself quite quickly, as the state prosecutor even questioned the 1,000 kroner violation after reading it aloud.

Coogan will still have to pay 700 kr despite going to court (Photo: Bjarke Smith-Meyer)

“I hardly had to say anything,” Coogan said. “Article four had been overturned without a word, and the judge smiled at me and said: ‘Well, that was easy’.”

Coogan still has to pay the remaining 700 kroner for cycling on the pavement or face four days in prison. She intends to pay the fine, but insisted that the money means very little to her now that the matter has been settled.

“It was about principle,” she said. “Forget the money. I just wanted to prove my point. Everyone told me that resistance is futile, but if there’s an injustice, you have to tackle it head on.”

While Coogan may have felt she was falsely accused, the police have insisted that any fines that are handed out can always be questioned and taken to court. 

“We won’t go into specific court decisions,” the on duty policeman said. “But it’s up to the plaintiff to take the matter further if they disagree with the charge at hand. We just do our jobs. If you disagree with a fine, we encourage you to take the matter before a judge.”

Coogan’s victory might be a small one but, as she pointed out, it is also proof that citizens can question authority figures if they feel subjected to injustice.

“Yes, it’s a long process,” Coogan explained. “But it isn’t a painful one. We’re lucky enough to live in a society that gives us the right to stand our ground and demand an explanation. And to have that and not use it is basically criminal in itself.”