Ordinarily I don’t push stories to the top of the queue when I have a backlog, but it’s late, I’m bored, and the topic I really need to be blogging about is going to take a couple of days to put together.
Yahoo News reported a story which was originally featured in Lehigh Valley Live, about Lynda Farley, driver of the “Liberty Van” which is covered with tons of political messages. On the way back from September 11 ceremonies in New York City, Lynda was cited for driving with an obstructed view (the windshield is bordered with flowers). The citation carries a maximum fine of $56. Instead of just rolling over and paying the fine like most people, Lynda contested it, and appealed the initial guilty verdict. And won. It took over 5000 miles of driving totaling over 100 hours on the road, and undoubtedly expenses which dwarfed the original fine amount.
But she won, and that leads me into a commentary about the sad state of our so-called justice system, especially at the lower levels such as traffic tickets.
At one time in the distant past (17th century or earlier), most charges brought up in court were taken to trial. Pleas of guilty and thus plea bargains as we know them today were rare. As more and more cases clogged the courts, plea bargains became the norm to keep backlogs to a reasonable length.
By the time motor vehicles became common place, so had the plea bargain. Every traffic ticket fine schedule is a plea bargain which the court will accept if one pleads guilty, pays the ticket, and waives the right to a trial. Take it to trial and lose, and what could have been only a $56 ticket (in this case) could easily become $400 or more after court costs and, in some cases, the arresting officer’s hourly wages to come and testify against one in court (which is just plain outrageous if you ask me).
While plea bargains are perhaps better known from legal drama TV shows for felony cases, it is the traffic tickets where they are most successful, followed closely by certain misdemeanors. Misdemeanor plea bargains have a similar premise, with the idea that (in the case of class B and A in Texas) usually the defendant is in jail with no realistic hope of getting bonded out. So, the prosecutor offers “time served” in exchange for a guilty plea. Defendants in this situation have a lose-lose decision in front of them: take it, and get another case on their record; decline it, keep the possibility of a clean(er) record and stay in jail for what may be another month to most of a year depending on how many cases are on the docket.
And people wonder why I have such issues with our excuse for a justice system. This problem may be specific to the US and certain other countries. According to Wikipedia, the “trumped up charges” tactic by which many US prosecutors secure a large number of guilty pleas is forbidden by the UK prosecutors code. It’s an admittedly rare case of the UK getting something right, in my opinion.
Lynda shows us that beating a penny-ante traffic ticket the same way most would contest an assault case is technically possible, but financially infeasible especially when the court is in another state, or far away from home. Of course, the cops know this. They want every ticket they write to just be paid (or maybe dismissed with the safety course for states such as Texas that offer the option) without a second thought.
Finally, some advice for those stuck with a traffic ticket. I will conclude by saying that I’ve had at least three traffic tickets dismissed just by setting them for trial. Show up, officer/witness doesn’t show, case dismissed. Sometimes they do show, but if you are ready for trial with an attorney, there may be more than, say, four cases that potentially make it to trial that day. If it’s the end of the day and your case hasn’t been heard yet, I have heard usually (Harris County and Houston) it gets dismissed. Of course this may vary.
Last but certainly not least, since this really, really bugs me the more I think about it. If the court is one of the obnoxious ones that tries to stick you for the wages of the cop testifying against you, and the case gets dismissed or you are found not guilty, consider invoicing the city for your time, attorney’s fees, and actual expenses. Push it as far as you are comfortable with, but I feel one will have excellent odds pointing out the clear inequity in being asked to pay for prosecution expenses and just being out one’s own expenses if one prevails.