Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Here comes the judge.

Okay Sparky, so you weren't able to talk your way out of that ticket. What to do you know?

1. Decide if you want to beef the citation.

When the nice officer hands you your ticket, he'll tell you your options are listed on the back of the citation. Generally, your options are pay the ticket and forget it. Plead guilty with an explanation or plead not guilty and ask for a trial. Mailing in the bail will require the full cost on the ticket. If you go to the courthouse clerk's office to post bail, some jurisdictions will give you an automatic bail reduction, but don't count on it. If you appear for your arraignment date listed on the citation and plead guilty, most judges will cut you some slack and reduce the bail. This presupposes that you didn't curse out the officer during the stop. You can plead guilty with an explanation either by mail and posting the entire bail or by appearing for your arraignment. This may or may not reduce your fine. If you decide to contest the ticket, contact the court clerk well before your arraignment date to set a court date. If you wait until to appear on the date written on the citation, you'll waste a trip downtown.

2. Preparing for court.

The awful truth is that absent compelling evidence to the contrary, the judge will take the officer's word over yours. If you want to win your case, you can't just argue "That officer is all wet, I wasn't speeding." Bang. Guilty as charged.

Prepare your case.

Review your notes and photographs that you made immediately after the stop.

Read the law. You can be sure the officer and the judge know it backwards and forwards. The Oregon Traffic Code can be found here. Each traffic offense has certain elements that the officers must prove. These include establishing jurisdiction (the offense happened in a specific place), the officer's authority (duty status, was he in uniform and if not did he display his badge) and specific elements of the crime.

Read the citation. Officers make mistakes. A while back, I was cooling my heels and talking to another officer, Bill, in the courthouse hallway while we waited for our cases to be called. A defense attorney approached Bill and asked to talk about the upcoming case.

"Gosh, Officer Bill, help me out here," the attorney said. "Your signature appears nice and strong on the court's copy of the citation, but not on my client's copy. You wouldn't have forgotten to sign the citation before giving my client his copy, then signed it later would you? That would be considered false swearing."

Officer Bill stammered "Ah ... ah ..." and a puddle of yellow liquid pooled at his feet. Bill went into court and asked to dismiss the citation because it was issued in error. It was Bill's lucky day. The judge didn't ask why.

Unless the error is as grievous as Bill's, don't mention it to the officer before court. Hold your cards close. Also, ask the court clerk to review the court's copy of the citation. Most officers make notes on the back of that copy to refresh their memories. If you write a lot of tickets, they all merge together.

Gather your information, find weak spots in the officer's case and be patient. More on trying the case in the next installment.

3. Do you need a lawyer?

Depends. If you've committed a traffic crime, then yes, absolutely. If you were driving drunk, led the police on a merry chase through a couple of states, and rumbled through the D.A.'s rose garden. Just say hello to your new roommate, Big Dick Fuzzwalter. You'll be fast friends by the time you get out of the clink. If the ticket really cheeses you off, get a lawyer. Get a good one. Not one that your deadbeat brother-in-law Phil recommended. Don't use your family attorney. The best defense attorney is the slimey, pitbulls that the cops hate. Ask around. If you know a cop, ask them. Pay a visit to traffic court, watch some trials, see the attorneys in action. Pick one that you will be comfortable with. Face it, good attorneys aren't cheap, but then bad ones may not be either.

Next: inside the courtroom.

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