The judge asked me what happened. The first words out of my mouth were a mistake.
“I was speeding, but…” The judge interrupted to say, “Then why are you here wasting my time?” I said, “I was not going 60. I was going 45. I live on that street, and near Costco the speed limit is 45. It then goes down to 35, and right where I live, it’s 25. There’s a school there, and I’m careful that when children are present, I drive slower.” The judge asked if I wanted traffic school. I asked, “Does that get me out of paying the ticket?” I knew it didn’t. It used to. He said, “No. You’ll still pay the ticket, and traffic school can be expensive. But it will keep this off your record.” I said, “I have a perfect driving record. I never get tickets.” He responded, “Yeah, I can’t believe what I’m seeing. You have the cleanest driving record I’ve ever seen.”
The judge made me pay the full amount for going 25 miles over the posted limit. I was going to confront the cop outside and ask why he lied in court, but I realized that it would do no good, and it could get ugly. And I’m sure he just didn’t like watching everyone winning their cases, when they’d clearly broken the law.
So, back to my current ticket. I thought I’d try my luck again and fight it. If a cop could lie in court last time, maybe I would this time. A friend of mine is a sheriff in Vista. He told me years ago that cops love going to court. They get paid overtime, and it’s an easy day of work.
Another cop told me a certain number can’t make it to court because of other business they have to attend to or because they’re involved in a bigger court case. He guessed the number of officers not showing up as between 25–35 percent. (And I was surprised when the court reporter told the bailiff, “Wow, we have 100 percent attendance with the officers today.” But I’m jumping ahead.)
I went in for the phase where you plead “guilty” or “not guilty.” Two cell phones went off, and the bailiff went over to tell the owners to turn them off. There was also a sign that specified no use of cell phones, as well as another sign that warned against threats of verbal or physical abuse; such things would be taken seriously.
The bailiff had many hand gestures that got his points across quickly, without being loud in the courtroom. A few times he had to put his hand on his head, to signal to guys to take off their ball caps. One guy was wearing flip-flops and a bathing suit, with hair that looked as if it hadn’t been combed in days. Another guy kept his sunglasses on.
The judge was James L. Duchnick, who was very friendly and funny. One guy had gotten two tickets while driving without a license, and the judge lectured him. He talked about possible jail time but was friendly. When an old lady didn’t have her driver’s license with her, he asked her kindly to go to her car and get it. When it was clear that a person’s first language was Spanish, he would say a few words in Spanish.
I was surprised at one exchange with an older Latino. The guy claimed he couldn’t afford to pay his ticket and wanted a payment plan. The judge told him he’d have an extra 60 days to pay. The guy insisted on paying a small portion each month until it got paid. The judge said, “Earth to Mr. DeCarlo, I gave you extra time. We aren’t going to set up a payment plan for you. Why don’t you take a small amount, set it aside each week, and when you have the full amount, you can come in here, bring a big Mexican hat, dance around it, we’ll have a burrito, and the matter will be taken care of.” Everyone laughed, including Mr. DeCarlo.
One fairly young woman said she has had two heart attacks and couldn’t pay the ticket. The judge told her to stop having heart attacks. He then smiled and said, “Are we going to have you around long enough to pay this ticket?” I couldn’t believe he would say things like this, without fear of someday ending up in court himself.
An interpreter went up to an older Latina sitting in front of me and was explaining the process to her in Spanish.
I glanced over and saw my friend Sal, who happened to be in for his third ticket in a year.
It was finally my turn. When I was asked whether I was guilty or not guilty, I wanted to say something funny like “Guilty, by reason of sanity.” This judge would surely laugh, but I got nervous. I remembered as a teenager getting a “fix-it” ticket on my Mustang and sending in the ticket after the headlight was fixed. The court never got it. A notice came that told me I had a court date, which I ignored, followed later by a notice saying there was a warrant out for my arrest. The judge in Vista, for that case, said, “You know how many times a person has told me their payments got lost in the mail?”
I was fined $250.
Judge Duchnick asked whether I wanted a quick trial or one in 60 days. I told him I had no preference, and he said I had to pick. I went with 60 days. I thanked him. He seemed surprised and thanked me in return.
In preparation for my court appearance, I went back to take pictures at the scene. My ticket was for turning right on a red light. There was a sign that said I couldn’t. I took pictures of all the surrounding streets in Mira Mesa. Most of them show the hours you can’t turn right. On the streets that don’t let you turn right — but don’t specify certain hours — all had two or three signs to that effect; some even showed an arrow with a strike-through in red. But this intersection had only the one sign.