A few months after I bought my Mustang, I received a couple speeding tickets. Being naive in certain aspects of Life, I had a few things to learn about owning a sports car. Namely that it takes discipline to drive like a normal person when you don’t have to, and that sports cars make you more conspicuous to law enforcement. These were expensive lessons that I have fully incorporated into my Way of Life. As a result, I’ve become a slow and cautious driver. Now, whenever I cruise past the highway patrol I wince like a pyromaniac who has suffered 3rd degree burns.
One thing you notice when you get a traffic ticket is that there is a thriving business in traffic law. The week after you get a ticket your mailbox is deluged in come-ons from every traffic attorney in the county. Normally, I would just pay the fine and kick myself for throwing good money away. But as I received letter after letter, I figured there must be something to it. If it was a scam or useless to hire an attorney for a speeding ticket there would not be a thriving business around it, right? I wanted to find out for sure.
The next time I was downtown I stopped by one of the “firms” lodged like ticks near the courthouse. I asked what I needed to do to get a lawyer to handle my ticket. For the two tickets I had they charged $200 for representation. Even though I was concerned about spending money for what could turn out to be worthless, I was dying to know if this was a better option than just paying the fines, which I had no problem with aside from the considerable expense.
Using an attorney I might be able to keep the tickets off my record and maybe not pay the fines at all. After talking to an older gentleman who told me he always uses a lawyer for traffic tickets, I signed up, wrote out a check, and left the clerk with the tickets. The clerk issued a bond later that day to cover me until my court date and a few days later I received a note explaining what I needed to do next (just show up and say “Here” when they called my name at the docket) and that I would have to appear in court in 6 months. A few months later I received another letter that my court appearance was rescheduled another six months after the original date. Basically, this meant I would not appear in court until over a year after I had received the tickets. My guess is the traffic lawyers like to do this as a delaying tactic, especially since my court appearance was scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving, which might be inconvenient. The delay was also a good thing in that it allowed me to put off an unpleasant trip downtown, although it took everything I had to remember to go.
When my court date finally approached, I got up early and was down at the Courthouse for my 8:30 AM appearance. If you’ve never been to court for a traffic violation, you’re in for a treat. The whole thing is a remnant of bygone days when you had to interact with other people and wait patiently like cattle. It was fun to observe the random cross-section of my fellow Dallas citizens. Although, I imagine more higher-income people would not waste their time challenging a ticket. You’re more likely to see the lower and middle classes represented. People for whom a few hundred dollars and an increase in auto insurance premiums can cause a serious hardship and a cascade of negative consequences. This is one of the unpleasant realities of the criminal justice system. The penalties sufficient to encourage compliance from the bulk of the populace are often an extreme burden for those living paycheck to paycheck.
When you go to your assigned court room, the judge comes in, explains a few things, then proceeds to do a roll-call from the docket. This determines which cases will be handled. In Dallas, they use a stand-by system where they don’t call the witness (the police officer) in until they know you’ve showed up. The judge goes through 40-50 people to determine which cases will be on the second docket call. If you show up the case goes forward, if you do not, the judge would likely issue a warrant for your arrest. About 30% of people on the docket were not present. When they call your name, you say “Here” and the prosecutor tells the judge whether the state is ready to proceed or not. Generally, the state is ready pending arrival of the witness. After the docket has been cleared, the judge declares a recess until the second docket call an hour later where the real business begins and the attending officers make their appearance.
When you come back for the second docket call, they do another roll-call and the prosecutor announces whether the state is ready to proceed. If the witness (the officer) is unavailable, the case is dismissed. If the witness is available, you or your lawyer will generally make a deal with the prosecutor: dismissal for things like “no proof of financial responsibility” (no auto insurance) if you can prove you had insurance at the time, or “deferred adjudication” if you plead no contest for something like speeding. Deferred adjudication basically means they dismiss the ticket if you can go six months with no other offenses, but you still have to pay court fees, which can be equivalent to 50-75% of the original fine. And if you fail to keep your nose clean for six months, you would have to pay the fines. Besides pleading no contest, another option would be to plead innocent. But this is generally a bad idea as it wastes everyone’s time and suggests that you might be a prima donna who doesn’t want to play ball.
In my case, both tickets were dismissed because the witness was unavailable. Dismissal means it never happened. No fines, no court fees, no increases in your insurance premiums, no six hours watching “comedy” defensive driving. Could I have achieved the same result without a lawyer? Only if I could be certain the witness would be unavailable. Otherwise, you would have to be prepared to make your case with the prosecutor pro se (representing yourself). They hand out deferred adjudication like candy and I probably could have received it by working directly with the prosecutor. So, the jury is out on whether it was a good investment. I’d be curious to hear of anyone else’s experience.
In my case, I never even met with my attorney. His clerk showed up to make sure I was there as they are responsible for the bond if I was not. Then I never saw him. Luckily, the case was dismissed, so I didn’t need him anyway. Aside from moving the dates, I did everything else myself. I got the impression that the attorneys are there mainly as backup and to ensure that you get a crack at deferred adjudication. I’m not convinced they do anything else and some of them seemed pretty useless and just as seedy as you might expect. One lawyer had silver hair in a ponytail AND crutches for a broken foot. Another in a tired brown suit looked like he just crawled out of a whiskey bottle.
Even though I spent $200, it was a good experience and preferable to the $600 I would have had to spend in fines. I am still not sure if hiring a lawyer made any difference, but I would probably try it again.
Things I learned:
- As bureaucratic and imperfect as it seems, the legal system works pretty well. At its most basic level, the Law aims to define negative behaviors and prescribe remedies. There is something comforting about this emphasis on creating order from the general human chaos. This is no small task. There are rules and then there are the ways we carry out the rules. Reason is a necessary basis for Justice. Justice guarantees our freedom and harmony by theoretically ensuring that all men are treated equally in the eyes of the Law.
- Traffic offenses are criminal offenses. As a result, you are protected by the Constitution. Pretty cool, huh?
- As the judge put it, the aim of the law is generally to encourage compliance. In other words, while the measures may be punitive, the goals are noble. This is a good distinction as people often attribute a nefarious dimension to the role of Law in Society. As I have some experience with people and their failings, I prefer this imperfect system to the law of the jungle.
- When it comes to motor vehicle violations, unlike in other areas of criminal law, intent is irrelevant. You are responsible for what you do in your vehicle, even if you did not mean to do it.
- Drive the speed limit.