Thursday, October 11, 2007

My Day in Court

Back in August, I was issued a speeding ticket. I suppose I deserved it, but I was hoping that the officer would give me a break considering my advanced age, clean driving record and lack of intoxication. I was wrong.

The ticket stated that I could simply declare myself guilty and pay the $185 fine by mail. However, if I took that option, I would receive four points on my driver’s license (which would raise my insurance rates), and I would be required to pay for and complete a half-day “safe driver” course. The other option was to request a court date.

I discussed my options with a lawyer who plays pool with me on Monday nights, and she told me I should just go to traffic court and plead “No Contest.” This would leave the disposition of the infraction up to the hearing officer. The hearing officer is typically a local attorney appointed to preside over traffic court for a day, so it changes from day to day. Some days you can get a reasonable person, some days you get the other kind. I decided to take my chances, because I had never been to traffic court before.

In addition, there was always a possibility, no matter how small, that the police officer who issued the citation wouldn’t show up, and the hearing officer would dismiss the case. I calculated that there is about a 4% chance of this happening. It’s not much, but it’s worth a shot. So I requested a court date and today was it.

The traffic court was a large, semicircular room with two sections of theater-type seats in front of a large elevated desk with about 8 chairs behind it. In front of the desk were two “witness docks” and a small conference table with office-type chairs around it. The theater-type seats were narrow, and every other one had a small fold-up writing table, such as you might see in a university lecture hall, in case you wanted to do courtroom sketches of the proceedings, I suppose. The room had seating for about 200 people.

Glum-looking traffic violators filed into the courtroom, mixed with the police officers who had issued the tickets. The police hustled down to the front of the courtroom to grab those office chairs from around the conference table, which they wheeled to the back of the hall. I figured that this was because the office chairs were wider, and they could sit more comfortably with all that junk fastened to their utility belts. I was dismayed when the officer who issued my ticket wandered in just before the proceedings started.

The hearing officer divided the room, requiring all “defendants” to sit on one side of the aisle, and the police on the other. Then, he announced that he would take the cases of individuals represented by attorneys. Two attorneys took turns standing in the docks, entering pleas and accepting judgments on behalf of their clients, who were not present. It seems like a crappy way to earn a living, running to traffic court for your clients, but I guess you have to start somewhere.

All of the people who were pleading “Guilty” or “No Contest” were then asked to line up and the hearing officer took them one by one. Some of the chronic offenders in line with me were debating the pros and cons of pleading “Guilty” versus “No Contest” in nervous whispers. A few of them insisted on embellishing their plea with sob stories, and it was immediately apparent that such efforts were wasted breath. Others were clearly resigned to their fate, entering a plea with their head down, waiting for the axe to fall. In almost every case, the fine originally assessed on the infraction was raised by $20 - $100.

When my turn arrived, I stated my name and my “No Contest” plea and otherwise kept my mouth shut. The hearing officer glanced at my driving record, declared “No Adjudication” (which means no points on my license) and “No ‘safe driver’ course.” He raised my fine $40, which I suppose is intended to cover court costs, but I secretly suspect they all just divide it up at that conference table when court is over.

When I left, there were a handful of defendants remaining, who had elected to plead “Not Guilty.” These individuals had brought witnesses and file folders containing photographs or other documents. They all had weird, righteous looks on their faces, believing that they were going to beat the system. I was dying to stay and see how they presented their cases, but I had to leave. Maybe I’ll take a day off sometime and hang out just to see that part of the show.

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