Traffic Court Tribulations
Aug 23 2008
The other day I went to traffic court for the first time in my life. I got a ticket back in May for ‘disregarding a right turn only’ sign on 4th and Lavaca in the downtown area of Austin. [I couldn't find a right turn only image, but it looks similar to the 'left lane must turn left' image I put at the beginning of this post except for the fact it said 'right' instead of 'left.']
At the time, there were three cops pulling over people for doing the exact same thing I had done. While they were giving us tickets, at least 5 more cars drove by who did the exact the same thing the three of us had done. I had not seen the sign just like the others and it was obvious to me this was a ‘right turn only trap!’
I’ve never contested a ticket in my life, but this time I felt it was obviously a set-up and I DID NOT ‘disregard’ the sign because I didn’t see it. How can you disregard something you don’t even see? So thinking I might have a chance to make my point and get it dismissed, I pled ‘not guilty.’
Now I’ve had a few speeding tickets in the past…not many. I’ve never (knock on wood) had a ticket hit my record because here in Texas you can take a Defensive Driving course and a) the offense won’t show up on your record and b) you can get a discount on your insurance premiums. I believe you can take the course no more than one time per year.
I’ll admit on a couple of occasions, I deserved a speeding ticket so I took the course. On only one occasion did I consider a ticket I got to be unfair and again it had to do with a traffic signal issue. They changed the timing of the signal and several people who normally drive that way accidentally ran a light. The cops even said that was the case, but I was in college and too afraid to contest anything back then. But I digress…back to the ticket at hand.
I was assigned a date to show up at the court to hear my options. The prosecutor, who had an attitude of “I’m smart. You’re dumb. Don’t waste my time.” did not tell me anything more than what was on the paperwork I had. He asked me if I wanted to waive my right to a trial by jury. I told him I wasn’t sure and asked his opinion. He had no real opinion other than to say if I wanted a trial jury I would most likely be in court several days because the jury trials run over time often and are rescheduled for other days. He told me if I picked a trial by judge I would most likely get it all over with during the set time. So being the busy person that I am, I picked the trial by judge.
I don’t have any traffic lawyer friends so I kind of hoped the cop wouldn’t show up. I did try calling the University of Texas Law School to so if they had any students who could help me only to find out they only help other students or possibly indigent citizens and they were backed up for months. If the cop doesn’t show up, the ticket is usually dismissed. Well in my case, the cop did show up.
So the day of the trial, I called the traffic engineering department of the city because a co-worker of mine said he thought the sign had been changed. I figured if I could get proof that the sign had been changed, I would have a chance to prove it was poorly designed and the charges should be dismissed. They faxed me over two documents showing the intersection and one a work order that was called in by a police officer in June to make the street painting/marking clearer to indicate that lane was in fact a ‘right turn only’ lane and to add a sign to the traffic light (where MOST people look) that indicated the right most lane was a ‘right turn only’ lane.
The cop was fair in his description and admitted they were performing a ‘traffic initiative’ (nice way to say ‘traffic trap’ if you ask me) and indicated the painting on the street was faded. I didn’t know what rights I had in an ‘entrapment’ situation so I had no idea what questions to ask!
I attempted to submit the work orders and other paperwork I had received from the traffic engineering department of the city and the prosecutor immediately started saying things like ‘that’s hearsay, she can’t tell another person’s story‘ before I was even able to say anything. I said ‘how can written documents be hearsay?‘ The judge then said he wouldn’t allow the documents and he wouldn’t even read them!
He instructed the court reporter to make note of them and for me to show them to the prosecutor. I tried to show them to the judge but he refused to look at them. He kept asking me if I had further evidence to submit. Now, my degrees are in business and my only experience with lawyers is with corporate attorneys or TV shows like Boston Legal so I wasn’t sure what else I could present as evidence. I wasn’t even told I could bring witnesses. Even if I knew I could bring witnesses, I don’t know who I could have brought that would have been credible to the judge.
I was TOTALLY unprepared to represent myself in this matter and yet I was probably more prepared than 90% of the people who enter that courtroom! I could tell I threw them for a loop by actually bringing in paperwork that demonstrated the KNOWN safety hazard that intersection presented. They seemed at least momentarily perplexed.
So, I was found guilty and sentenced a fine of $101 ($1 above court costs) plus $25 in filing fees of some sort. Of course I was annoyed but was slightly distracted by the splitting headache I had started to get a couple of hours before arriving at the courthouse.
In my summary, I asked the judge to consider the fact that I did not have a ticket on my record (due to taking defensive driving and it being years since I received my last one anyway) and have never appeared in court. Apparently, that didn’t matter.
I asked the judge, unfortunately after his verdict, about deferred adjudication, and he said I should have been offered that earlier and I said I had not been offered that. With an attitude of ‘oh well,’ he then said that since he had already ruled that was it and he was done with the case.
As I was leaving, the cop told me I had done a really good job in presenting and he agreed with me that the intersection was badly marked and should be fixed. He was nice enough, and I know he was doing his job or doing what he was told. But it does beg the question why these cops didn’t just call in this problem years ago since it’s obviously a ‘violation’ that happens often.
I was, as I mentioned, annoyed and angry, but those feelings were tempered because I got to see the case right before me that had to do with a taxi driver. [I found it odd that everyone can come in and watch the cases to know what you were accused of because not only because that could be uncomfortable for the defendant but also might make the judge feel like he has to be a stickler to show he's not weak.]
This poor woman was a single mom who drove a taxi in the evenings to make ends meet. She mentioned she had even put her daughter through college and had another kid at home. After listening to the case, it was unclear to me what she was accused of and I think she did a good job of telling her side of the story. However, it didn’t seem to matter because they believed the cop, who had his partner with him who said she could see everything (highly doubtful) and found her guilty and fined her $164.
There were a few more guys waiting to do their trial when I left. There was another woman waiting outside who said she’d been there since that morning because she was accused of outstanding tickets that she claims she never did. She said she was living in another state during the days they accused her of certain tickets. She said she had $7K in fines and no way to pay them and would have to sit in jail for 30 days to serve her time and take a leave of absence from her job. Crazy!
They gave me a hard to understand document about appealing but given the time I’ve already spent on this and I’d have to pay about $110 just to get the transcript made by the court reporter if I wanted to use it in an appeal, I’ve decided not to appeal and reduce my chances to get more headaches.
I know this post is long, but I had to get it out in case it helps someone else. My key takeaways:
2. Take pictures (i.e., evidence) of the site
3. Find a witness. I had thought about asking the two other drivers who were pulled over to contest with me, but I was afraid to get out of my car for fear the cops would think I was doing something crazy and they would shoot me or something.
4. Find a lawyer friend who knows something about traffic law to help you or show up with you at a jury or judge trial
5. Bring headache medicine with you! My headache medicine of choice is usually something laced with ibuprofen like Advil.
6. Bring someone with you for moral support if you don’t have a lawyer or a witness.
7. If you have the opportunity, take a Defensive Driving course even if you feel wronged and avoid the whole experience all together
I don’t regret contesting the ticket because it was a learning experience for me and interesting insight into our legal traffic court system. Live and learn as they say.
If you think this post could be helpful to others, please Stumble, Digg, share, etc. If any of you have experiences with the traffic court system, please share in the comments below.Author: Aruni | Filed under: FYI, random stuff | Tags: austin traffic court, defensive driving, deferred adjudication, right turn only | 8 Comments »