Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The Guerilla Guide to Traffic Court

Jerry Stratton, May 10, 1996

First of all, this is not a guide to winning in traffic court. That isn’t possible unless you know how to give bribes. In traffic court, the police officer is the law. Period. If the officer claimed that Jesus stepped down from the heavens and claimed you were speeding, this would be presumed true unless you could produce Jesus as a witness on your behalf. Even this probably wouldn’t work, because the courts aren’t going to take the testimony of a long-dead commie hippy seriously over that of your average hard-working police officer.

I’ve seen officers’ blatant lies taken as fact. I’ve seen officers who were clearly targeting minorities (tossing a cigarette out of your truck on a crowded freeway is a fire hazard, it seems, especially if you’re hispanic). The only time I’ve ever seen an officer lose a case is because the officer didn’t show up to begin with, once: it’s not as common as its reputed to be; and, once because the officer, when faced with a photograph showing that he was blatantly lying about street conditions, admitted that he was blatantly lying and tried to change his testimony. Had he just rolled with it, the photograph would probably not have been taken as serious testimony against a hard working police officer.

So you aren’t going to win. Why are you there? When I go, it is for the following reasons:

  1. To see how the system works,
  2. To remind myself that the police are not our friends,
  3. To keep the officer who ticketed me from harassing anyone else, at least for a few hours, and
  4. To let the system know that I’m not going to go away quietly.

If you are going to go to court, be prepared. You want to remain calm--even when the officer doesn’t. You want to make your points clearly, methodically, and as slowly as possible. You want to remain calm even when the officer doesn’t, and the officer probably won’t because they aren’t used to ordinary Joes talking back to them.

I recommend that you try and make it to the session before you are scheduled to appear. You’ll get to see five to ten other people lose their cases, and you might come up with some good ideas for losing your own with dignity.

Bring notes. Make them detailed, and study them beforehand. Make a separate listing of each point you want to make, so that you can make use of it while you’re speaking. Write down a detailed description of what happened, as soon as you decide you really do want to take it to court. Get photos of the area. They might come in handy if the officer tries to claim things that don’t exist.

Bring paper to make notes on, so you can write down what parts of the officer’s testimony you want to reply to.

Bring diagrams of the streets in question and the conditions at the time of the ticketing.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The officer testifies as to what happened. Even if you were clearly in the wrong, the officer will make something up, so as to keep in practice. Your job is to make notes of what you want to respond to, make fun of, or ask the officer about from testimony.
  2. You are allowed to question the officer. Mostly, I think you are supposed to question the officer’s testimony, but things are pretty lax. The officer will probably get pissed, if you’ve done your job right. Then, you can ask questions from the officer’s interjections.
  3. The officer’s counsel, if it exists, will ask the officer questions to try and offset the damage done by your questions. Most of the time, the officer won’t have counsel--just like you won’t. Sometimes the city will use traffic court as a training ground for new attorneys. If you have the honor of helping to train a new attorney, do a good job!
  4. You make your own summary of what happened. Before you start talking, set up the diagram board, making references to your written diagram. Here in San Diego they’ve got neat little toy cars with magnetic bottoms that you can stick on the diagram board and play with while you talk. They’re really cool, and you should use them. Make a detailed explanation of what happened, and use extra detail for those parts of your testimony that conflict with the officer’s.
  5. Now, the officer gets to question your testimony. Smile, be calm, and make your answers as detailed as you can without conflicting with your previous questions or testimony. Use the diagram board to help you answer the officer’s questions.
  6. The judge comes up with some reason why you were wrong and the officer was right. If you’ve done your job correctly--remained calm, were reasonable, presented yourself well--the judge will try to justify this decision in some way. You can tell how good of a job you did by how long it takes the judge to justify upholding the ticket. The judge’s ruling (at least, here in San Diego) will involve something along the lines of “not disproved”. In other words, even though the judge claims at the beginning of the session that both your testimony and the officer’s are given the same consideration, you have the burden of proof. The officer doesn’t have to prove you did it, you have to prove you didn’t. That’s a big difference, especially if you’re honest.

You can continue to be a pain in the butt by smiling and calmly asking how you can get a transcript of the case. Most likely the judge will refer you to the marshal (each room has a marshal to make sure the police officer doesn’t shoot you when you’re calm and the officer isn’t). The marshal will explain to you what forms you need to fill out to get a transcript of the case.

And remember that experience the next time election season comes around.

April 15, 2000: At least I got to see the officer squirm

The article is right on the money. I was given a ticket for doing 35 in a 20 mph school zone. While I was waiting for my chance, I saw:

  1. An elderly lady on welfare lose a case where she had her seatbelt tucked under her arm instead of over the shoulder. She even brought a copy of the law, challenging the judge to find anything indicating exactly how the seatbelt should have been worn. The officer produced a amendment to that legal paper, that was only ten days old, that specified that seatbelts must be worn according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Evidently, traffic court expects people to be aware of ten day old amendments to laws that only the police have access to and you can be held accountable for infractions you made before they were offically even infractions!
  2. A guy lost his case of using part of an unused carpool lane just to get around an accident. Evidently, traffic court expects people to just sit there behind an accident even when it is easy and logical to navigate around it.

I fared no better.

I’m a computational scientist supporting the Intel Tflops supercomputer in use at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque New Mexico. The truth was, I wasn’t even watching my speedometer at the time I passed the school zone sign. But bang! The officer was behind me seemingly before I even passed it. I pulled over, he told me how fast I was going and gave me a ticket. I looked over the ticket and as I looked behind me, I noticed that he was already giving a ticket to someone else! So I took a quick picture of the scene with my digital camera and went home. The incident bothered me, so I did some simple math to try to figure it all out. In order to be going 35 mph at the sign, I’d have to be doing about 60 feet per second. But I was pulled over only about 100 feet from the sign. That meant that in the space of a little over 1 1/2 seconds:

  1. He clocked me
  2. He got behind me
  3. I noticed him behind me
  4. I pulled over
  5. I came to a complete stop.
  1. <- San Diego’s Finest
  2. Nobody in 1996 ->