One man’s mission to protect the Constitution
Don Bird is a 72-year-old man with polite manners, a bushy gray beard and 22 grandchildren. A former Marine who served three years during the Korean conflict, and a retired general contractor, he’s not someone you’d expect to see standing on a street corner with a large sign draped around his neck.
But there he was last Tuesday (March 6), standing proud in his grey U.S. Marines sweatshirt with his authentic green military cap and badge, in front of KHSL-TV’s offices on Eaton Road. It was an unseasonably warm day, but he stood there, occasionally pacing back and forth, for two full hours, carrying a sign that accuses the KHSL and KNVR news crew of being “cowards.”
Bird was protesting the KHSL-KNVR news operation because it refused to do a story about him, saying he wasn’t “newsworthy.”
Don Bird, you see, is on a mission. He wants to save the U.S. Constitution from those who would ignore or dismiss it.
It all began more than two years ago when Bird, who lives in Rancho Tehama, north of Red Bluff, was pulled over and issued a speeding ticket for going 71 in a 55 mph zone. Rather than pay the $192 fine and move on, he asked for a jury trial. It was denied.
Bird has studied the Constitution. He knows the Seventh Amendment states, “At suits of common law, where the value shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of a trial by jury shall be preserved.” As far as he was concerned, the refusal to grant him a jury trial was unconstitutional. “The Bill of Rights is not amendable,” he says with sturdy conviction.
In 1968, however, California passed legislation that made contested traffic violations cases for judges to hear. Bird approached two state legislators—Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, and Sen. Joseph Simitian, D-Palo Alto—about offering citizens the option of a trial by jury in traffic cases.
Neither man was willing to take up his request. Now he calls them “liars” because, he insists, they lied when they took their oaths to defend the Constitution. And he’s not giving up: “My passion keeps growing from being ignored on an important constitutional issue. I refuse to back off until I get an answer.”
Simitian is unfazed by Bird’s criticism, saying, “It goes with the territory. In robust and vigorous debate, you learn sometimes you get the rough and tumble.”
Every year Simitian holds a “There Oughta Be a Law” contest inviting citizens to summit bills to the Legislature. He picks the best ones to sponsor. So far about 10 contest winners have become laws. Bird’s bill as well as implementation suggestions are entered in this year’s contest.
LaMalfa has a different perspective. David Reade, LaMalfa’s chief of staff, said that LaMalfa has met with Bird on numerous occasions to deliver the same message: He disagrees with Bird’s agenda.
The courts in this state are overbooked with serious matters and it is not reasonable to ask them to deal with traffic infractions, LaMalfa argues. “Burdening working people to sit on a jury for traffic tickets is irrational,” Reade said.
Two hundred twenty years ago, when the Constitution was written, $20 was worth a lot more than the average speeding fine today, but Bird is adamant that people’s rights shouldn’t be trampled on.
Doug Jacobs has been teaching constitutional law at the Cal Northern School of Law, in Chico, for 20 years. He believes Bird’s case has little merit.
“Common laws do not apply to traffic tickets. Those are infractions not punishable by incarceration,” Jacobs explained. He believes judges base their interpretation of the Constitution on its applicability to the society of today.
Whatever one thinks of Don Bird’s quest, it’s hard not to respect the man’s passion for the Constitution. Even if his efforts come up empty, he is optimistic about the effects they will have on society.
“I am hopeful, even if I fail in my endeavor, it might plant the seed for other citizens to stand up for their rights,” he said.