LA Times: Traffic Court — It’s No Democracy
This post was originally published by the LA Times on Feb. 25, 2007
THANK GOD for efficiency, that's what I say, and especially for the Santa Monica Superior Court, Traffic Division, where I had occasion to spend some quality time recently as a result of a traffic infraction.
Like most people, I believed that the officer who cited me had been overzealous (end of the month, quota to fill). I was determined, therefore, to exercise my constitutional rights and contest the ticket. Accepting that it might be a waste of time, I resolved to go anyway, state my case honestly and hope for understanding, or leniency (or at least for the officer not to show up).
I made my way to the courthouse at 8:30 a.m. sharp, resolved to interact with the infrastructure of American democracy at the grass-roots level.
As it happens, my case was one of the last called, so I was able to spend the entire morning observing the legal process in action.
I was disconcerted at first to overhear a lawyer advising someone that the chances of winning a case in traffic court were absolutely nil unless the arresting officer fails to show, but I reminded myself to have faith in the process and to put no stock in hearsay.
Things looked up immediately when the judge (or commissioner) entered the courtroom, greeted everyone and gave a wonderfully clear and concise speech reminding everyone that this was a court of law and that we were all innocent until proved guilty and entitled to give evidence, produce witnesses and question our accusers, just like in a regular court of law anywhere in the land.
To the right of the judge was a group of police officers, all seated together, and a whiteboard, on which they had drawn diagrams of the infractions we were accused of. My heart sank to see that mine was one of them.
The first few cases were dispatched briskly. The judge showed little inclination to waste time listening to long, drawn-out rationalizations from careless motorists hoping to argue their way out of a fine. One man, attempting to talk his way out of trouble, was warned that he was under oath and subject to penalties of perjury. The officers were well prepared, businesslike and authoritative. The cases of a few lucky defendants were dismissed because their accusers failed to show, and things moved along in such a way as to give me hope that I would be well out of there by lunchtime.
As we proceeded down the road of justice, however, several disturbing bumps appeared. One was when a woman in her 60s, easily imagined as someone's mother or grandmother, well dressed and articulate, took the oath. She had allegedly made an illegal right turn at a red light. Her guilt seemed obvious until she produced a set of large, professional-quality photographs clearly demonstrating that the relevant sign was totally obscured by foliage at the place where the infraction allegedly occurred.
The officer countered that there was another sign she should have seen, and without further discussion, the judge declared, as she had many times already, "the court finds that the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty as charged." I wondered how the officer knew about the second sign (could he possibly know the location of every traffic sign in Santa Monica?).
Then, a few minutes later, a young girl, a high school student, was called before the court for a similar infraction. She had brought a witness with her, a passenger in the car when the infraction occurred. His testimony (under oath) completely contradicted the officer's. Nonetheless, without delay, "the court finds that the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty as charged." Wouldn't you want to ask that officer a few more questions? I asked myself.
Then a middle-aged black man was called, presentable in appearance but clearly not flush with disposable income. This man was accused of a pedestrian violation (crossing against the red hand in a crosswalk), which he denied. The officers stated that the violation had taken place in Culver City after 11 o'clock at night. The defendant pointed out that the streets were deserted, and the officers admitted that this was true. The man then said that the officers had followed him into the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant where he had gone to use the restroom, waited for him to come out and then searched him. He felt that this constituted harassment, and he had gone to the police station the same night to file a complaint.
He was agitated, and easy to dismiss as a crackpot, but I could not help visualizing the scene as he described it and asking myself why the officers felt it was necessary or appropriate to detain and search him. The judge refused to listen to his complaint, lectured him on the importance of pedestrian traffic laws, declared him guilty and ordered him to pay a fine of more than $100. He left the courtroom promising to go to jail before he would comply.
By the time the judge got to me, I had observed that every single case in which the officer took the trouble to appear was resolved in exactly the same way, regardless of how the defendants argued their cases or what evidence or witnesses they presented.
That entire morning, the judge never questioned or challenged a word uttered by a police officer. Several times during the proceedings, I observed officers looking over at their brothers in blue and smirking as they gave evidence. It was plain to me that the judge would accept the police officers' words without question or challenge.
Sadly, I came away thinking that, under these circumstances, a police officer might be tempted to clean up the details of his story, omit inconvenient facts, embellish or even lie outright, even if just for the sake of efficiency, when it appears the outcome is never in doubt.
For myself, I chose to imagine that I misremembered the circumstances of my infraction because the sight of a uniformed officer lying outright in a court of law made me so sad that I was more comfortable imagining that I was the one at fault (which is what I did).
Even so, it's hard to resist the temptation to sneak back into the court in the dead of night and spray-paint a big kangaroo on the doors. But, what the heck, at least the trains run on time.
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