In Ferguson, Missouri, policemen held contests to see who could write the most citations. The courts went along with this miscarriage of justice, issuing arrest warrants when people couldn't afford to pay their tickets. NPR did an investigation and found that many communities use traffic courts for raising revenue rather than providing justice. Is this just a problem in other states and not California? Does the Santa Clara County Superior Court trade justice for money?
The court's mission statement reads: "The Superior Court in Santa Clara County serves the public by providing equal justice for all in a fair, accessible, effective, efficient, and courteous manner: by resolving disputes under the law; by applying the law consistently, impartially and independently; and by instilling public trust and confidence in the Court.”
From what I recently witnessed while attending traffic court, there is nothing consistent or impartial about the way the court is conducting itself.
In a trial I witnessed Jan. 26, a woman was given a citation for not having a ticket on a BART train. The young mother explained that she and her mother and her 4-week-old baby were taking BART. She put her credit card into the ticket machine and without looking, grabbed the two tickets that were dispensed. When the BART officer asked for the tickets, she produced one ticket and a receipt—identical in shape to a valid ticket—from a previous purchase that someone had left in the machine. She was given a citation but asked for a trial since she had the credit card receipt showing that she had purchased two tickets. Anyone traveling with young children knows that it's an ordeal, and this was nothing more than a mistake. The woman explained to a commissioner (judges do not preside in traffic court) what happened, but the presiding authority chastised her for not contacting BART to have the mistake corrected. Anyone dealing with BART knows this would have been an additional headache. The commissioner decided he would take off $100 from the $250 fine. While it’s true that she didn't have the ticket in her possession, was justice served in this case?
This story is not new. J. Douglas Allen-Taylor wrote an excellent piece in 1997 for Metro, detailing how the current system developed in Santa Clara County. Fight Your Ticket... and Win! author David Brown also covered this in his book. California established a plan in 1968 to eliminate all procedural rights that interfered with revenue raising aspects of the traffic enforcement system. Brown writes in his book. "The Legislature did this by creating a new category of crime known as the 'infraction.' The 'infraction' was a new type of category for which no jury trial was allowed, even if demanded by the accused. At first, only parking violations were defined as infractions. [Now] all but a few of the most serious traffic offenses (such as drunk or reckless driving and drag racing) [are] classified as infractions."
In other words, according to Brown, California did away with constitutional guarantees such as the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury and the Fifth Amendment right to be free from self-incrimination by the simple use of semantics.
Let's look at how the system works. You receive what you believe to be an unwarranted traffic ticket, and you decide to fight it. A letter comes with the date and time of your court appearance. You head over to the courthouse on Homestead Road, go through the security check and then wait in the hallway in front of the courtroom. The bailiff opens the door and you walk in. All the defendants are seated in the chairs in the courtroom gallery. On the other side of the railing is one long table and two microphones where both the police officer and the defendant can speak. On a raised platform is the commissioner who will hear the case. The police officers are seated across from the commissioner. Since the American system of justice sees both the defendant and the plaintiff as equal, it would seem appropriate for the police and defendants to sit in the same area. The visual message is very clear—the courts favor police over the defendants.
First, everyone promises to tell the truth. Then, the commissioner will ask defendants one at a time how they want to plead: innocent, guilty or no contest. If you plead guilty, the commissioner will suggest traffic school and, of course, you have to pay the fine plus more money to attend the school. For a fee of $30 you can have extra time to pay the ticket; for $35 you can do an installment plan. If you don't show up, then a $300 service fee is added to your fine. A fix-it ticket costs $25.00, and the same amount is due if your ticket is dismissed. This moneymaking operation is in full swing. Those people pleading innocent will be scheduled for a trial.
I attended 72 arraignment hearings, and the punishment for those pleading guilty depended which commissioner was assigned. One commissioner lowered all the fines. This individual also said that if you were cited for driving without a license and/or insurance, and had taken care of the problem, he would drop those charges. Another commissioner was not as generous. He would not drop the charges if you did not have insurance or a license when you were given the ticket. Fines are basically determined by which commissioner hears a case, and what type of mood they are in.
If you pay your bail in advance, you could have an arraignment and a trial at the same time. I watched 37 trials. In 13 of the trials, the policemen did not show up. If the defendant hadn't shown up there would have been a $300 fine, but there's no punishment for the police. Policies differ for each commissioner. Two commissioners immediately dismissed some tickets when the officer didn't attend. Two other commissioners said they would dismiss the case if the officer didn't show a second time. Of course, the defendant would have to come back to court. It doesn't matter that the defendant may have to miss work, travel a long distance or be inconvenienced in other ways. These commissioners believe that the policeman's time is more important than the defendants.
When it's time for the trial to begin, the name of the defendant is called. The police officer and the defendant both walk up to the table. The commissioner states the charge, and then the officer tells what happened. The officer usually goes into detail about being in a marked car in full uniform and if an electronic device was used. The officer will then discuss his/her training with that device. The commissioner then asks the defendant if he/she has any questions for the officer. Next the defendant presents his/her case, and the commissioner then asks the defendant questions. The officer just stands there as the commissioner behaves like a prosecutor. The defendant is then found guilty almost every time.
Everyone was found guilty in the 37 trials I attended, with three exceptions. One ticket was from 2007 and the officer had lost his notes, so he asked that the case be dismissed. In the second case the officer sent a note that it should be dismissed in the interest of justice. In the last case, the woman was incarcerated when the ticket was issued, so obviously she could not have been also receiving a ticket on a light rail train. In every other case, the police had to win.
In his 1997 article, Allen-Taylor tells the story of a man who presented an impressive defense when he was given a ticket for not yielding. It turns out that the man on the motorcycle was a San Jose policeman. The defendant said that he stopped at the stop sign and looked both ways. The officer came out at the last minute from behind a parked truck. In direct testimony, the motorcycle cop was just as adamant in telling the opposite side of the story. But the officer stumbled over a critical question from the commissioner.
"Did the motorist yield the right of way until the left turn could be made with reasonable safety?" the judge asked. The officer stammered, unsure. Even though the officer couldn't answer an essential question about the violation, the police officer's word was given priority and the man was found guilty.
With so many of these tickets being simple infractions, oversights that put no one in danger, one can only assume they are issued to generate revenue.
On the last day of finals, right before Christmas at De Anza College, I entered a mostly empty parking lot. I was thinking about the test I was about to administer to my class. Instead of coming to a complete stop at the stop sign, before entering the rows for parking, I slowed to one or two miles per hour. There were no people or cars in the vicinity so my action was safe, but I received a ticket and, of course, the commissioner found me guilty. In the course of my research, many people went to court because their infractions were judgment calls.
I saw a case where the woman that entered the expressway in the carpool lane was not able to merge into the next lane quickly enough because of trucks and heavy traffic. In another case, construction signs caused the gentleman to be confused about the carpool lane. Finally, several people disputed the accounts of police officers who accused them of not making a complete stop when turning. These actions didn't endanger anyone, yet the defendants were all found guilty. The carpool fines were especially expensive.
Only once did I observe any criticism of the police. A motorcycle officer alleged that a man was smoking, flicked the ashes from his cigarette out the window and they hit the officer in the face. The man said that it wasn't true—he had his window open to let out the smoke and he used his ashtray for the cigarette. The commissioner said that he didn't believe the officer's story about the ashes hitting him in the face, but he found the defendant guilty and fined him $490. There was no penalty for the officer's lie.
More frequently we have observed the total disregard for law by law enforcement, as police departments in this country have gunned down unarmed minorities, highway patrolmen have shared intimate iPhone photos taken of women in custody, and officers have pepper sprayed students peacefully protesting. When people ask for a trial, they believe that they are innocent and come to court for a fair hearing. And yet, what we see is the commissioner acting as a prosecutor and the word of the police taken as sacrosanct. I've watched cases that are “he said, she said” with people who haven't had a ticket in 30 years. It doesn't matter—the police officer is always right.
We have a belief in this country that the courts should be impartial and provide justice. But using traffic tickets to provide revenue, coupled with the attitude that police officers are always right, prevents us from obtaining justice in our court system. Why can't judges and commissioners look at the defendant's side of the case and rule accordingly? Only when that occurs will the Superior Court of Santa Clara County follow the principles outlined in its mission statement. Only then will there be justice.