People always talk about fighting traffic tickets in court. But what does it really mean to “win”? It’s not as if you won a trip to Hawaii. It’s not as if the state pays you back for the two different days you took coming to court and the hours you spent or time you took off work. Winning merely means that you don’t have to pay. It’s more like a tie.
When I got a ticket recently, I decided to go to court and fight it. My friend Janna had just gotten out of a ticket (the cop didn’t show up and it was thrown out).
Seven years ago, I got a ticket on Carmel Mountain Road, and fighting it didn’t work. The officer pulled me over and politely asked why I was in a hurry. We made small talk, and I signed the ticket. It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed he had given me a ticket for going 60 mph in the 35 mph stretch of the road. I was going 48, tops.
In court, I couldn’t believe what was happening. First, the bailiff read a list of cases in which the officers didn’t show up. Those seven people got up, smiling, as their cases were dismissed. When it came time to hear the others plead their cases, I was in awe. One lady was a tall, pretty blonde in a military uniform. She said she would never do anything to jeopardize her job. “The only reason this cop gave me a ticket is because of the ten-foot California boa in my car.” The judge, looking surprised, said, “A snake?” The officer clarified, “I had a ride-along in my car. We spotted her [the blonde woman] drinking in the parking lot of 7-Eleven, and her and her friends got into a vehicle with open containers, so I pulled them over. She wasn’t drinking, but I told her she was still responsible for the cans in the backseat. She claimed she couldn’t see what people were doing in the backseat. When I noticed the snake back there, I figured, if there’s an animal that large, she is probably well aware and looking back there often.” The woman pleaded, saying that this could hurt her military ranking. For some reason, the judge sided with her.
Another guy was driving a Pepsi truck in Mira Mesa and didn’t yield for a cyclist. The cop said, “An old Filipino man on a bike crashed because of the way this guy came around the turn.” The judge threw that out, because he said the cop should’ve given a ticket for reckless driving, not for making a wide turn.
An angry African-American woman started yelling at the judge, with her hand on her hip. Her body swiveled like an angry lover on Jerry Springer. She said the cop was hiding behind a billboard and that wasn’t fair. She was ticketed for going 85 mph on the 94 freeway. As she yelled, the judge looked through a book. He said: “In that stretch of freeway, and at 5:30 a.m., when you were speeding, there’s not a lot of traffic. I don’t think it’s unsafe for you to go that speed, so I will let you off.” The lady continued to yell, claiming the officer followed her for a long time before pulling her over. The judge said, “Ma’am, I don’t think you understand. You won.” She seemed confused. I think all of us were. This, I thought, might be the nicest judge on the planet.
Only two guys didn’t get out of their tickets. One was speeding on the 56, weaving in and out of traffic. He said, “Your Honor, I never speed. Ever. I want you to call my wife. She will tell you.” The judge angrily said, “Are you crazy? I’m not going to call your wife. You could’ve brought her here or brought a written deposition from her.” The guy’s story got weirder. He said he was rushing to get his son to soccer practice. The judge said, “So, it sounds like you were speeding.” The guy said, “No. I went the speed limit, but I was in a hurry. I would not jeopardize the life of my son by speeding.” The judge rolled his eyes, sighed, and said, “What is it you want?” The guy responded, “To not pay this ticket. I wasn’t speeding.” The judge said, “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that in my court... I believe you were speeding. Would you like to take traffic school, so this doesn’t go on your record?” The guy (who never speeds) said, “I can’t, because I took traffic school a few months back for another speeding ticket.” The judge said, “I will let you take traffic school.” The guy threw his fist in the air and said, “All right! Cool! That’s what I wanted, because…well, I really was speeding.”
I was the last case. The officer in my case introduced himself by saying how long he’d been on the force. The previous officer had had “2 years on the force”; another had “1 year as a highway patrolman, and now 3 years as a police officer.” My officer said he had “19 years on the force.” He listed his police accomplishments, one of which was that he was a sharpshooter, which made him sound like the Rambo of cops. Finally he said that he’d spent the last 8 years as a regular cop (which was more years than all the other officers). Things got worse when he told his version of the story.
“I first saw the defendant driving by me, at a high rate of speed, in his silver Porsche.” He emphasized the word “Porsche.” He continued, “I almost couldn’t catch up with the Porsche. But when I finally did pull the Porsche over…” I was dying to interrupt by saying, “What kind of car was it again?”
The cop then said, “The defendant said to me, ‘How do you know what speed I was going? Did you use a radar gun?’ I informed him that I don’t use a radar gun but that I had paced behind him to gauge the speed. He then snatched the ticket from my hand and said, ‘I’ll see your ass in court!’ ” The judge looked at me. I wanted to scream, “That is a lie! That conversation never happened. I would never speak to anyone that way. Especially someone with a badge, and someone that I’m hoping will let me out of a ticket.”
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.
I taped the pictures to a big piece of cardboard and clearly wrote those points above them. One friend told me if I go in a week before my appearance and request a different court date, that increased the odds of my officer not showing up, but I figured that would be more trouble than just paying the damn ticket.
I got my hair cut on the big day and would swear I heard the theme of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly playing from that buzzer that shaved off my sideburns. I wondered if the officer was preparing for the big showdown at high noon (well, 2:30 p.m.).
My information stated I needed to be there 15 minutes early. I got there an hour early. I figured I could get a feel for the courtroom, almost as if it were a basketball court. I could read the newspaper and chill out. And as I drove there, I heard on the radio something about Heather Mills possibly getting $200 million from Paul McCartney. This inspired me. If she can get $200 million, I can save $200 dollars.
In court, a bailiff asked, “Who is here for the camera ticket, for the light in Poway?” Five people raised their hands, and he took them into a room to show them a video. He came back out, and ten minutes after our scheduled time, he started explaining the rules. He said when the judge says our name for roll call, to loudly answer. He said, “So when he says ‘John Smith’…” A guy then yelled, “Here.” The bailiff said, “What? What are you talking about?” The guy said, “I’m John Smith.” The bailiff, looking confused, said, “Oh. I should’ve used the name John Doe as an example.”
The crowd was more dressed up this time. One guy was putting a tie on as he walked in. The women wore fancy dresses. One guy did have on a Hawaiian shirt and blue jeans. I had opted for a sports coat and slacks. I figured a suit and tie would look as if I was trying too hard. The bailiff asked one guy near the front, “How often am I going to keep seeing you here?”
The officers were then brought in. I wondered why they hadn’t been brought in earlier. Was it so we wouldn’t give them the stink eye? It gave us a false sense of security, the idea that maybe our officer wouldn’t show up.
One officer had his cell phone go off, and he took the call. The bailiff reminded us all that phones needed to be turned off. Defendants 1, police 0.
It was odd to hear the cops laughing and talking up a storm in what was a quiet courtroom. It seemed cocky, but then I realized that it probably just appeared that way to us. Those sitting around me glanced over, looking for their officers.
The judge was 15 minutes late. He gave us all our oath at once, to save time. He then had some of us move to a bungalow for our cases. I had flashbacks of junior high.
It was weird to see the flags and a complete court set up in such a small setting. There had been a handful of people that had pictures they were going to show. One guy had a video. The bailiff pointed to my cardboard and said, “You have to show the officer whatever it is you are showing to the judge.” I said, “When?” He replied, “Now.”
Damn. The cop would now see my ace in the hole. I walked over, saw my officer, and said sarcastically, “Nice to see you again.” He sneered and took the cardboard. He was polite when he handed it back to me a few minutes later.
A female judge came in to the bungalow, and we were asked to stand. Things got started quickly. The guy before me was a teenager who wanted traffic school, but because he had gotten a ticket a year earlier, he didn’t qualify. The judge asked the officer if this kid was polite during the stop, and the officer said yes. He was granted traffic school.
I was next. The officer put a chart on the chalkboard and explained that he had been dressed in his police uniform “like I am now.” I wondered why that was necessary. Are there people coming in here claiming they didn’t know that the person with the black-and-white car and flashing lights was a police officer?
When it was my turn, I explained how there was only one sign. I lied, saying that I did not see the sign and that that is a poor excuse for a motorist. I thought admitting that would score me brownie points.
I said I felt it necessary that the street have a bigger sign, or another one added, the way all the surrounding streets had.
The judge was writing things down. She asked the officer if there was only one sign. He said yes. She asked him if there was a struck-through arrow. He said no. I was liking this. She was handed my cardboard, and she mentioned that the sign did look small. She handed it to the officer, to ask if it was the area I claimed it was. He said it was. I told her how the officer told me that pulling out when the light is red impedes traffic. But I explained that all the lights were red, with cars waiting, so nobody had to yield for me.
She smiled occasionally and nodded in agreement at the things I said, while glancing down at my photos. She told me she would reduce the $180 fine down to $50. She asked if I would like traffic school. Aware of my ticket from a few years back, I needed to keep points from accumulating on my driving record. I took traffic school. She told me there would be a $28 fee to transfer some records, and then I’d have to pay the driving school. I asked the price, and she said it would be cheaper because my offense was a “level 2.” She guessed around $40 (for my previous ticket, I was told $200). And for some reason, I started telling her about that previous ticket, where I went through a red light because a guy in a bicycle next to me did, and I wasn’t paying attention. Why she didn’t tell me to shut up, I don’t know. But she just smiled and said they don’t have different laws that take into account why you ran a red light.
The bailiff handed me a list of driving schools and said, “If you take the one that’s online, I would suggest you do it soon. Sometimes it takes them three weeks to send out the certificate.”
I couldn’t believe they let you go to the school online. He said, “Yeah. They also have one that’s a video you can watch from home.”
I glanced at the list and saw “California Jammin’,” “Comedy Traffic School,” “Pizza 4U,” “Joy of Motorcycling.” A few were given in Spanish, and there was “Gay Community Traffic School.” I wondered if there was a traffic school for singles. Would people try to get tickets to meet other singles? Or if you went to the one that served pizza, would anyone talk about how bad the pizza delivery drivers are? Do we, as a society, have such a short attention span that we need all these bells and whistles for traffic school?
Life was simpler when those bells and whistles, and an old baseball card, were attached to our bicycles.
— Josh Board