This article addresses Court Appearances for Traffic Tickets, known as infractions, like a speeding ticket.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU GO TO COURT…
The first time to you go to a Los Angeles Superior Court of California to deal with your traffic ticket, you will probably be directed to a clerk’s window. The clerk will probably tell you that you have to set a date in the future to be heard by a judge. Then you will have to go back to court another day. That second time will be before a judicial officer, maybe a judge, commissioner, temporary judge, or otherwise. Cases will be called in some order that you cannot change, so you may be stuck waiting in court a few hours, or all day. (FYI: I have noticed that sometimes people bring babies to court with them. This never elicits sympathy from the court to have your case heard sooner. If the baby cries, the bailiff tells them to wait outside. If their case is called while waiting outside, maybe a warrant would be issued.) Basically, just trying to get your case heard will take at least a few hours and a trip to court, if not two separate trips to court.
WHEN YOUR CASE IS FINALLY CALLED…
The bailiff may seem friendly or mean, but it does not matter. His or her job is to maintain order, and security, in the courtroom. “Turn off your cell phone!” is the first thing you may hear. Then the bailiff will call through all of the cases as a roll call. Persons that did not answer will be put in a separate pile. Persons that come in late may have to wait until the very end to have their case called. This could take from 8:30am until noon, or until after lunch. There is also a court clerk. The clerk is basically the secretary that runs the paperwork show and assists the judicial officer with details. Sometimes the clerk or the judge does the roll call. Some judges like to do it themselves to establish their presence and to expedite the process. This is called calling the calendar.
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BEING ADVISED OF YOUR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS…
It is a little ironic that the court advises you of your constitutional rights because they later tell you that they cannot advise you of the law and they also do things to encourage you to plead guilty quickly so that they can clear their docket (the list of cases on calendar for that day). On the other hand, you can exercise your constitutional rights. Furthermore, it is good that judges seek to be efficient and quick. This saves taxpayer dollars in general. If everyone who ever got a speeding ticket in Los Angeles County wanted to take an hour to talk to the court, traffic court would be a 24/7 event without any holidays and would be backlogged indefinitely. Notwithstanding, if you want to be heard, you have that right. The problem you will face is that this first hearing, called the arraignment, is not your chance to be heard. You must set your case for trial to he heard, but we will get to that in a minute.
YOUR OPTIONS TO PLEAD AND PAY OR FIGHT ANOTHER DAY…
The judge (“judge” here is used generically to refer to whatever judicial type officer is on the bench) will inform you of the charges against you and ask if you understand. The judge does not care if you agree or do not understand the law. He or she is only asking if you understand that you are being charged with what he just said. What he just said to you is that the People of this great State of California found good enough reason, probably cause, to charge you with violating a law written in the books, that you are aware of and should understand because, after all, you did pass a driving test to get licensed to drive. (This all sounds a little circular and paradoxical, but that is how you will feel in court when you are standing I front of the judge. This is a little introduction to that sense of confusion.)
Upon being informed of the charges, the judge will ask what you want to do. You will have several options. The most basic options are to plead not guilty or guilty, or to take traffic school. Quite often, a judge will reduce your fine if you plead guilty. People often ask the court to reduce the fine when taking traffic school. However, rarely will a judge do this because it creates a little more work for the court. The court then has to keep the case open until you complete traffic school and the court receives notice of that completion. Furthermore, many judges think you are getting a break already with traffic school so why should they add more of a break. Moreover, the courts keep statistics on how much money they collect. The balance for the court, at least in some part, is clearing the docket (the day’s workload) with efficiency while also supporting the financial needs of our state and court. Thus, some balance is reached by encouraging people to plead guilty with reduced fines. (This will make more since once we look at the repercussions for the court when someone pleads not guilty.) Note that there are some fines that our legislature has told the court that they cannot reduce the fines, e.g., red light (California Vehicle Code section 21453), and car pool, (section 21655.5). (You probably would not be shocked to know that many judges find ways around this, but we can talk about the kindness of judges another time.)
Yes, you will get a negligent operator point on your California DMV record if you plead guilty for a reduced fine. The reason many people plead guilty is because they feel it is the moral thing to do, and that, in fact, they are guilty of speeding (California Vehicle Code sections 22349, 22350) or rolling through a stop sign (section 22450) or generally disobeying a regulatory traffic sign or signal (section 21461). This will probably lead to an increase in your auto insurance rates, but possibly not, depending on many factors. However, a reduced fine may save you up to a few hundred dollars. More often than not it will only save you about a hundred dollars.
On the other hand, some ticket in California do not result in points on you license. For example, some types of carpool lane violations are not a point, like failure to obey posted sign for HOV lane (California Vehicle Code section 21655.5(b)). Cell phone tickets are not points, either. However, I once assisted a commercial driver in resolving a cell phone case by getting the fine reduced in half. He called me back later and informed me that his company did not care about the point or not, they were going to suspend him from work based on the conviction alone. (This is rare, and likely only if you are driving a multi-ton tractor-trailer combination for a company that wants to avoid liability at all costs.) Fortunately, with my extensive experience in negotiations and traffic court possibilities, I was able to have the case dismissed by the judge post-conviction. I then sent a letter to his company explaining that the case was dismissed, no conviction on the record. (Not to brag, but this is the kind of service people need from an attorney in tough law traffic courts of Orange County, California, specifically the West Justice Center. [It is not always possible to get these fantastic results.])
CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO TRIAL, HAVING YOUR DAY IN COURT…
Pleading not guilty is the path to take if you want the judge to hear your concerns or to fight your case. For most of us, we just want to be listened to, for someone to acknowledge us, our concerns, our thoughts, and hear our side of the story. A judge will listen to you and the cop will hear it, too; whatever you say in court gets heard by all in the public forum. In Los Angeles County and Orange County courthouses, they are so busy with traffic cases that you will be one out of dozens of people in the courtroom waiting for their turn to talk. Usually, at the trial hearing, most defendants change their mind about being heard, but elect to go to traffic school if the judge will still allow it. The judge may not allow traffic school once you appear for trial. Sometimes, the judge will reduce the fine for a guilty plea at trial. Nevertheless, when you are standing before the judge at arraignment, deciding if you should plead not guilty to set your case for trial, you must realize that any option the judge gives you now, at the arraignment stage, may not be available when you return to court for trial.
An old judge once told me that court is all about being prepared beforehand. This is true even for your single appearance on a traffic ticket. It is important because traffic school or a reduced fine may not be available at the trial hearing. If you want to go to trial instead of the court’s offer, you need to make an informed decision. Information does not come from the court. That is why you need to know beforehand.
In contrast, as an attorney, I am almost informed and capable of making a variety of options possible that you may not even be aware exist. For example, I am always able to achieve other options at trial besides proceeding with the trial. It is just the nature of being an attorney, knowing what to say, what laws to use, how to treat the court with respect, and common sense that comes from the experience of being in trial court every day. I love my job; it is fun. However, for you, being in court for the first or second time, it may be nerve racking. There will be a bailiff, a sheriff with a gun watching your every move. You will be questioned by the judicial officer, the person with the black robe sitting high up on the bench looking down at you. There will be dozens, or even hundreds, of people staring at the back of your head as you stand before the judge. However, have no fear because you have constitutional rights. Just make sure you know what those are before appearing in court.
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