Justice for Sale in Santa Clara County Traffic Courts

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 Metrodetailing 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.

Robert Miller is a retired educator who lives in Los Gatos. In addition to being a PAR tutor, he is the author of the Rick Podowski and The Hefty Trio amateur detective series.

21 Comments

  1. >Two other commissioners said they would dismiss the case if the officer didn’t show a second time.

    That’s why rather than pleading not guilty through the mail, you should schedule and arraignment and refuse to waive your right to a speedy trial. They’ll try to talk you into scheduling your trial outside of 45 days so if the cop doesn’t show up they can reschedule.

  2. I’d like to compliment Robert a Miller for the obviously exhaustive research that went into this story. He sat in traffic court for a day and cited an article written in 1997. He also is apparently still smarting from receiving a stop sign ticket on an occasion when he admittedly did not stop for the sign.

    As for the lame excuses offered by the carpool lane violators the author saw in court, it might serve Miller’s agenda to believe them, but I’m sure the rest of the drivers on the road when those violators were cited (you know, the ones who were obeying the law and waiting in traffic) were applauding as the tickets were written. What a waste of space.

  3. Mr. Miller, I have some issues with to discuss you beginning with your paragraph that begins, “More frequently we have observed the total disregard for the law by law enforcement…” I’ll come back to this, but more pressing is what follows that opening line, “as police departments in this country have gunned down unarmed minorities..”

    Please enlighten me sir.. Where has an entire police department “gunned down” an unarmed minority? While you might simply chalk this up to semantics, intentionally placed hyperbole, like you just wrote, is working to cause deep divisions between the general public and members of law enforcement. I’m going to politely request that you make an edit to this sentence to reflect the truth, that “law enforcement officers in this country have shot and killed unarmed minorities.” I’m not asking that you censor anything.. But what you wrote is a complete exaggeration and it only serves to sensationalize a gross inaccuracy.

    Now, back to the opening line of your paragraph. I hate to break it to you, but law enforcement is not immune to the existence of bad apples. Where there is a human element, there will be mistakes. Even with the intense vetting process that goes on to select police officers, police academies and field training, some officers, who probably should not be cops, get through. This does not make their conduct excusable by any means, however, you cannot cast blame on the entire profession for their mistakes. That would be along the same lines as insinuating that all educators are pedophiles or sexual deviants who coerce students into doing sick things for grades and preferential treatment.

    Regarding your article, I agree that traffic court is inconsistent at best. I only write citations when I feel the violation is warranted based upon safety. I make copious notes on the back of my citations before I turn them in at the end of my shift so that my testimony is as accurate as can be should I have to attend court. When you’ve seen enough egregious violations (pedestrians included) that result in avoidable collisions and innocent people being injured, traumatized or killed, you eventually have to draw a line in the sand of what is tolerable.

    I know plenty of officers who do not write citations simply because of the possibility of having to eventually attend traffic court, not because they don’t want to be bothered, but because its usually a circus.

    • Mr. Rogers, you are absolutely correct that my comment implying that entire police departments are involved in gunning down minorities is hyperbole. I should have left that comment out of the article.

      Your statement about writing citations when you feel the violation is warranted based upon safety should be the standard for all policemen. Several years ago I was driving down Hacienda Avenue to my tutoring session. Since I was late I was going a few miles over the speed limit. A Los Gatos officer stopped me and issued a warning. Since that time, I have never exceeded the speed limit in that area. The kindness of that officer helped me to become a safer driver.

    • Steve Rogers says that the author “is working to cause deep divisions between the general public and members of law enforcement.”

      No. The law enforcement community is doing that to themselves.

      I am 67, and I have a clean record with no axe to grind. My last traffic ticket was many years ago. But my attitude toward the police has changed over the years. They have an insular “us against the world” attitude, and they cover up for each other.

      Rogers writes: “you cannot cast blame on the entire profession for their mistakes.” In this case, we can. The police are not like teachers, engineers, or any other professional body. We see time and again how they lie for each other. And if there is a bad cop, how many other ‘good’ cops will turn him in? Answer: zero. Because they will be ostracized by their fellow officers — if not worse.

      The author is correct, this is not justice, this is a shakedown of the public. Money has become everything these days, and the government is the most greedy offender. Justice and fairness take a back seat to revenue. The bureaucracy has turned into ravenous hyenas, grasping for every possible dollar. We see it everywhere.

      I am very conservative. So if my attitude has changed this radically, imagine what the average citizen feels. And if they are ambivalent about it, that is only because they haven’t yet been caught up in the system, expecting just a little fair treatment if they deserve it. But when they are caught, like the BART woman, they join the swelling ranks of disgusted, disillusioned citizens who used to look up to the law enforcement community as our heroes and protectors.

      No more. Those days are gone. And the blame must be laid at the feet of those fleecing the hard-bitten citizens, who never get the benefit of the doubt any more. Now, we are just easy marks.

      • Notable comment about justice and fairness take a back seat to revenue. In Silicon Valley corporate, the exact same thing can be said about ethics and integrity in regard to revenue. A very sorry sight to be seen.

  4. Huh… the Meyer successfully prosecuted dan near every one of the citations he wrote during his storied career.

    Too bad Mr Miller wasn’t in court to see Judges and Commissioners “take the matter under submission” in the cases where the defendant was a member of the bar or where the defendant chose to be represented by an attorney.

    Those words [take the matter under submission] were Judge/commissioner Code speak letting the officer know thw defendant was going to be found “not guilty” and saved the Attorney/defendant or defendant being represented the embarrassment of the commissioner /judge finding the defendant publicly guilty

    Miller you wasted a lot of time . Writing the obvious…. it is a universal truth that the word of the police carries far more weight than any defendant anywhere at any time on any subject. Most defendants on trial for felonies, misdemeanors or infractions are found guilty through trial or plea. That is a testament to the OVERWHELMING UNDENIABLE INTEGRITY OF THE POLICE and the value that society rightly has for its police. Society as a whole gets that.

    it doesn’t take much education to understand that a STOP sign anywhere whether or not other traffic or pedestrians are present means that you must STOP. You shoukd take great comfort knowing that had there been a sign that said ‘Slow to 1 or 2 MPH” the officer would probably not have written you a ticket.

    • > That is a testament to the OVERWHELMING UNDENIABLE INTEGRITY OF THE POLICE and the value that society rightly has for its police. Society as a whole gets that.

      No, more and more people are realizing that there is no due process in the United States. The system is stacked against those who can’t afford legal defense. Just look at how many executed prisoners are exonerated, let alone those convicted of lesser crimes.

  5. Another SJI piece revealing the dreadful state of public education, courtesy of a professional educator. Utilizing his middle school analytical abilities, faulty reasoning, and unabashed lack of objectivity, Mr. Miller provides us all with a clue as to why college graduate Johnny may be able to read but he certainly can’t think.

    Policeman holding ticket-writing contests a “miscarriage” of justice? Under what definition of miscarriage is this conclusion based? Unless innocent drivers were being targeted (which he did not suggest) the word use is inappropriate. Is Mr. Miller too dense to realize that when a police department organizes a traffic enforcement unit it is in effect assigning unit members to focus all their energies on ticket-writing (and requiring would-be members to demonstrate their suitability by out-producing their competition). I only wish the local cops would hold a few such competitions in my neighborhood.

    In criticizing the commissioner in the BART case, Mr. Miller expects us not only to accept his definition of “justice served” over that of the commissioner’s, but to view the latter’s verdict as evidence that the court is neither consistent nor impartial. Is he serious? Does he really believe that every judicial conclusion contrary to his own constitutes misfeasance?

    “Fines are basically determined by which commissioner hears a case, and what type of mood they are in.”
    Remarkable. Do you suppose that the students of this former educator ever voiced a similar complaint about the grades he issued? If what Mr. Miller wants on the bench is a fee calculator instead of a living, breathing judge, then he should say so.

    “… the commissioner then asks the defendant questions. The officer just stands there as the commissioner behaves like a prosecutor.”
    Mr. Miller appears under the impression that only prosecutors question defendants. Maybe he should’ve spent more time in court.

    “More frequently we have observed the total disregard for law by law enforcement…” ”
    Law enforcement consists of something like 900,000 police officers in the nation contacting tens of millions of citizens daily. Based on the evidence, the only thing being held in total disregard is the truth — by Mr. Miller.

    “… have gunned down unarmed minorities.”
    As a resident of Los Gatos, Mr. Miller’s knowledge of violent crime issues in America’s black ghettos must be assumed to rank alongside of those of Palo Alto resident LaDoris Cordell.

    • Frustrated, thank you for mentioning my superb middle school education. In fact I was one of four students in my 7-12 grade school that was picked to advance a year in math and science because of the national push to train more scientists and engineers so that we could put a man on the moon.

      You mentioned that I have faulty reasoning. I always thought that an ad holmium attack was a logical fallacy.

      “Is Miller too dense..” Isn’t that name calling (another logical fallacy)?

      “Does he really believe that every judicial conclusion contrary to his own constitutes misfeasance?” Isn’t this statement an either/or fallacy?

      The next area of concern is comparing issuing grades in my classes with the decision of the commissioner. This is called a false analogy. My grades do not result in a fine, points on a driving record, possible suspension of a license or an increase in insurance.

      Your final coups de grâce is comparing me (because I live in Los Gatos) to LaDoris Cordell. True, I haven’t worked with many African Americans, but I did work at Yerba Buena High School for fourteen years and at Foothill Continuation School for four years. We had issues with gangs and gang violence.

      Now that we have finished the logical part we have to focus on the main idea of the article. Do you honestly believe that the commissioners in the traffic court are living up to mission statement of the Superior Court of Santa Clara County?

  6. Your understanding of what constitutes an ad hominen attack appears to have been corrupted by the mindless dribble that passes these days for informed political debate. I directed my points at the content of your argument, not your character. Questioning one’s cognitive horsepower based upon the hollowness of the reasoning displayed does not constitute an ad hominen attack, no matter whether it is couched in educational jargon (“the student lacks the ability to absorb the material”) or public square venom (my favorite). Furthermore, questions (sentences ending with the symbol ?) are not offerings of solutions, so my question (about your views on judicial conclusions) does not quality as an either/or fallacy.

    In accusing me of using a false analogy you miss the mark completely. A good, workable analogy does not require that the things compared be identical (e.g. court penalties and poor grades), but instead requires that they be comparable in significant respects (in this case, the recipient’s criticism in reaction to the person administering unpleasant consequences).

    As for my coups de grace, given your experience working at east side schools (aren’t they protected by off-duty cops?), I wonder what it was about your teaching experience that caused you — a person who apparently equates “unarmed” with harmless, to choose pricey, lily-white Los Gatos over the much more affordable multicultural community from which you for so long earned your livelihood? Certainly it wasn’t the fear of gangs (whose members spend the majority of their time unarmed) or the prospect of having gentle giants for neighbors. Perhaps it was the same thing I suspect drew Ms. Cordell to Palo Alto — the privilege of engaging in flights of politically-correct fantasy about the whys and wherefores of minority lawlessness while far removed from the can’t-win, ugly reality of mass-produced and very dangerous dysfunction.

  7. The headline didn’t really match the story. If rich guys were buying their innocence or cronies were getting a pass you could call that “Justice for Sale”, but “Assembly-line Justice” might be a more apt description of California traffic court.

    • For VV, who wrote, “If… cronies were getting a pass…”

      They are!

      In California more than 1.5 million privately-owned cars have plate numbers protected from easy look up, effectively invisible to agencies trying to process red light camera and toll violations. The list includes local politicians, bureaucrats, retired cops, other govt. employees, and their families and adult children! Unbelievable? Read Cal. Veh. Code 1808.4. (In the legislature right now are bills to add even more govt. employees to the list.)

      • Henry: I read VC 1808.4 and have no problem at all with the employees listed there, and little problem with the fact that their kids can obtain this status. However, I do have a problem with the estimated 15% of California drivers who are uninsured. I also consider that estimate to be on the low side, since there is no reliable way to survey the millions of persons who are here illegally.

  8. The traffic courts are rotten, and always have been (the linked article is from more than a decade ago, but is must reading), but if you stay inside SC County at least you won’t experience the rottenest thing of all, a trial on a $500.00 red light camera ticket. (Since San Jose shut down its photo radar program, SC County no longer has any automated enforcement.)

    Most likely you will ignore my advice to not leave your neighborhood, so…

    If you are flying in or out of SFO, do not drive on nearby Millbrae Avenue between El Camino, the BART station, and the 101 freeway, or on the offramp from the southbound 101, because in October and November the City of Millbrae issued 2397 red light camera tickets (worth $1.2 million in fines) in that half mile stretch, nearly all for rolling right turns. If you have friends who will be going thru SFO, or renting a car there, warn them about the trap. Just tell them to chant, “If it say ‘Millbrae,’ stay away.”

    In Newark, San Leandro and Elk Grove, more than 90% of the camera tickets are for rolling right turns. In Rancho Cordova the figure is 88%.

    Down South, the Beverly Hills council just voted to expand their already-punishing camera system by 2/3, and neighboring Culver City is adding more right turn enforcement to their system.

    If you plan to travel in California, be prepared. Do a search on snitch ticket and another search on red light camera no consequence. Because just one of California’s camera tickets can ruin your whole day.

    • Henry: did you ever consider not running a red light and not doing a rolling right turn? If you don’t do the crime, you won’t get a fine. DUH!

  9. Jack Slade Chief of Security Here!

    I once stopped a high flying Attorney in a bright yellow new Porsche. It was at night and he jumped out and told me his uncle was a Municipal Judge in San Jose and handled one of the traffic courts. I wrote him his ticket and went through all that “I won’t SIGN IT ” nonsense. I went back to my patrol and got on my outside speaker and pretended to call for prisoner transport and a tow truck. I said “Now try not to bring that tow truck that scratches everything”. He jumps out and signs the ticket. I get to court a few weeks later and we are in front of his uncle who dismisses the ticket. The judge says he wants to talk to me so I hang around. First the attorney called the PD every day until he knew my three days off and set his hearing for my middle day off thinking I wouldn’t show. Wrong! So the Judge calls me in and says “Weren’t you Judge Longinotti’s Deputy a while back. I say yes and he tells me what an upstart his nephew is and apologizes for letting him off and says “If there is anything I can do in the future let me know”. So a few months went by and my niece gets a ticket and I tell her to select “My New Friend Judge”. I come with her in uniform and he dismisses her ticket. Yea, I know what your thinking but so what in today’s environment of corruption.

  10. I cannot relate to this. As a middle-aged white guy, I haven’t been pulled over in years. And the last time I just got a virtual dope slap and was let off with a warning. My simple rules, passed down from my father
    1. Don’t drive 90 mph anywhere.
    2. Stop at all signs and red traffic signals
    3. Don’t drive more than 7mph over the limit on arterial roads.
    4, If you turn into a carpool lane on an expressway, either merge before the light or turn right at the light. The traffic usually moves like a caterpillar, making it easyish to merge at the part that starts moving.
    5. Slow down when it rains.
    6. Try to pick a lane and stay in it.
    7. Do not challenge the officer’s authority or judgment. Submit to his or her lawful authority.