May 5, 2008

An Hour Of Traffic Court Will Do You Good

"Nuh-uh" is not a good defense in traffic court.

I got the call from the courts today that there was no one to hear the traffic trials this afternoon, so I agreed to help out. It was fast -- about ninety minutes for thirteen trials on calendar.

The reasons that people offer to get out of their traffic tickets is really amazing. It's one thing to fight a ticket in the hopes that the officer won't show up and it'll get dismissed. Half of the cases were no-shows, which resulted in either dismissals or referrals to the collection department for bail forfeitures. The rest actually went through with the trials.

The first thing you might want to think about if you have to actually try your traffic ticket is -- why would the cop lie? An unbiased traffic judge doesn't start out thinking anyone is lying, and the police officer gets to testify first. That's a powerful advantage for the state. The officer gets to set the stage, describing what was going on, and a well-trained officer uses that opportunity to explain why the defendant's (alleged) misdeeds were dangerous. If you're going to actually win on the testimony, you need to find some way of getting past that.

Secondly, given that the judge is not inclined to think that the cop is lying, simply contradicting the cop is, as a practical matter, not going to be enough to defeat the state's burden of proof. Your testimony that the police officer was simply incorrect about something will not be credited. The officer has been to traffic patrol school, the officer is trained in observing traffic conditions and records his or her recollections very quickly after the ticket is written. You very likely have not done this. Therefore, the officer's testimony about the circumstances of the ticket is likely to be credited over yours in the event of a simple red-light-green-light contradiction.

Third, of course, you can't actually admit that you've done anything wrong that's even like the violation before the court. "I was speeding, just not that fast," is a guilty plea as far as pretty much any traffic judge is going to be concerned -- again, as a practical matter. We've all been there, driving down the road at what we think is a safe, legal pace when we look at the speedometer and holy crap! How did the car get up to eighty-five miles an hour? Because of that, the police testimony about how fast you were going is likely to be believed, again in the face of a simple contradiction between witnesses.

The lesson here is, if you want to get a not guilty verdict, you're going to need more testimony on your side than "Yes, I did come to a full and complete stop." I don't know exactly what that something more you need will be, because the facts of your case will be different than the ones I've heard so far. But find something -- a photograph, maybe, or a witness -- to give your testimony additional weight.

But mainly, if you really want to beat your ticket, you should take some time to go to traffic court before showing up to fight your own ticket. Go to the court that your case will be tried in. In California, there's an excellent chance that your ticket will be decided by a pro tem judge, like me, the clerk is the one really running the show. I'm there to weigh the evidence and make a judgment in a contested case. I'm not working the files. The clerk does that, the clerk knows the procedures, the clerk is doing the hard work. So it will profit you to see the clerk in action.

But it will also profit you to see how the cops testify. Listen to what they have to say when they present their credentials. Listen to what those credentials are. Listen to the workman-like way they approach presenting their case, the matter-of-fact tone of voice they use, and understand the reason why the judge is likely crediting the officers with telling the truth while the defendants must labor to provide some evidence to raise a reasonable doubt.

Traffic court hears a few kinds of non-traffic cases. Some kinds of infractions go before traffic court because there is no jail time at issue. Which brings me to the other big point to make about winning in traffic court -- understand the offense that you've been accused of, and its defenses. For instance, today I had a woman with a leash law violation, which was apparently caused by the wind blowing down her fence and her dogs getting out of the yard. She obviously took good care of her dogs; she had vaccination records and other things for her pets. It was clearly an accident, beyond her control, that the fence blew down in winds that were unusually strong even for this area. But it's a strict liability crime. Her intent to take good care of her dogs didn't matter; the dogs got loose and they stayed loose for two days until Animal Control picked them up. Her defense, that she didn't intend to let the dogs loose, was irrelevant.

I don't particularly like finding people guilty of traffic violations. But it has to be done. I would like to find reasonable doubt if I can, and sometimes I ask searching questions of the officers to see if there is any doubt. But as a defendant, you have to give me something I can hang my hat on. You have to do something more than just say "Nuh-uh" when the police officer says you ran a red light, were speeding, or otherwise committed one of these infractions.

If you want to fight your ticket, go to traffic court to see how it happens, do your research about the law, and find some evidence. Most officers want to go to court -- it's easier, safer, and often times better-paid duty than being on traffic control, so count on having to fight a contested ticker. And remember that the police are trained in both issuing tickets that will stick, and providing the testimony that will make them stick -- so be prepared for a fight and keep your wits about you, and your temper under control.

Finally, remember what I see my job as when I'm sitting up there on the bench. It's not to be a rubber-stamp for the officer and automatically approve every ticket. It's to make sure the system works the way it's supposed to. It's to play my small part in getting your lead-footed ass to slow down and drive safely, so you don't kill someone I love on your way home from court.

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