My Trip to Traffic Court

The Denver City and County building is a massive, grandiose gray behemoth with all kinds of stone columns and other indicia of sovereign importance, and after business hours its stateliness is lessened somewhat by a large black and white sign shooing people away from the main entrance at the top of the dramatic steps toward a much less impressive street-level side entrance. And since I had after-hours business of a quite unstately kind - a traffic court appearance - it didn't bother me too much to use the lesser entrance.

The specific offense delineated in my traffic citation was "following too closely," and I was required to appear in court because my purported infraction had allegedly caused "substantial property damage." The ticket came in the aftermath of a four-car pileup on Interstate 25 heading into downtown Denver several weeks earlier in which I had the pleasure of serving as the caboose. The only evidence the state had against me was the fact that I had collided with the rear of another car, which under Colorado (or perhaps Denver, I can't recall) law constitutes prima facie evidence of following too closely. There was no doubt that the collision caused significant property damage to my own car, though I considered that to be a matter for myself and my insurance company to deal with and didn't see how the government had any dog in that fight. The question remained as to whether my late-model Japanese station wagon caused any appreciable damage to the large American pickup truck I collided with, particularly considering the fact that said pickup truck had likely been totalled by colliding with a second pickup truck seconds before I got there.

In any case, the property damage enhancement precluded the officer from assessing a fine at the scene, and required a court appearance. The practice of issuing citations after accidents was new to me, and I envisioned enthusiastic patrolmen desperately trying to fill the state's budget shortfall by stuffing citations into the pockets of unconscious accident victims as their bodies were loaded into ambulances, or perhaps handing the yellow slips of paper to nearby nexts of kin to be paid by the estates of drivers who didn't make it. I, thankfully, was not injured in the crash, but one way or another I got the ticket and had to appear in court.

The security guard at the courthouse, who approached his duties with all the severity of a government employee convinced that his every act is critical to public safety and functional democracy, directed me toward the appropriate room after I satisfied him that my allergy medications were not, in fact, weapons. When I arrived at the room as instructed I found not a courtroom at all, but a counter staffed by a handful of people at computer terminals, and wondered if the dignities of traffic court had been stripped to the point that robeless judges were offering counter service. Not so, it turned out, as I was further directed to an actual courtroom elsewhere in the building after checking in with one of the terminal employees.

I had checked my ticket several times to make sure I was showing up at the right time, so it was quite disappointing to see my name listed on the 7:30 calendar, a full hour after the time written by the citing officer (who was already on my list for obvious reasons). The time was approximately six o'clock when I arrived at the courtroom and since there was a six o'clock calendar and I had nothing better to do I decided to sit in the back and observe the proceedings to get an idea of what I was up against. I had given up on trying to beat the ticket altogether, but was steeled for a proper tongue-lashing from the judge about traffic safety and so on and so forth, and had my physics-based arguments prepared about the relative damage caused by my car. I assumed the court appearance was necessary because the property damage enhancement mandated a larger fine, and I was all geared up to convince the judge that my contribution to the overall property damage caused by the pileup was minimal and therefore the punitive enhancement should be reduced.

Immediately upon entering the courtroom it was apparent that I was severely overdressed. As a member of the State Bar of Colorado it didn't seem appropriate for me to appear in court, even traffic court, and even as a defendant rather than an advocate, without wearing a suit, but I had made the strategic decision to wear an old suit so as not to come off as the kind of fellow who deserved to be taken down a peg by being forced to pay an extra hefty fine. I didn't expect to see many, if any, other suits in the courtroom, but I anticipated perhaps neckties, or at least collared shirts. What I saw were T-shirts, a Carmelo Anthony jersey, and about a dozen pairs of jeans. I took a seat in the back row.

The clerk was in the middle of calling roll to make sure everyone on the calendar had shown up, and shortly after confirming that she went to summon the judge. The clerk returned through a door leading into the nextdoor clerk's office with a handwritten "THIS IS NOT AN EXIT" sign taped to it, and a few moments later a large hidden panel behind the bench swung open and a man who bore a striking resemblance to Fred Gwynne's character in My Cousin Vinny - hulking, broad-shouldered, long face, gray hair - appeared and took his seat. I noticed for the first time that no prosecuting attorneys were present.

After shuffling through the small stack of papers the clerk had left at the bench the judge called the first victim, an attractive young Hispanic woman wearing faded jeans and some kind of Ed Hardy-style shirt. I still wasn't sure how harsh the judge would be with the dozen or so defendants he had to deal with during this first round of the evening, but I sensed that others in the room weren't as worried as I was. I would later reflect that a not-insubstantial percentage of traffic court defendants probably went through the experience more than once. The judge's voice was also very Fred Gwynne-like -- deep, booming, and authoritative, though not quite as cartoonish and lacking the southern drawl. The judge asked the woman how she was doing, and the woman said "Fine, how are you?", her acts of asking an informal question of the judge and failing to punctuate her statement with "Your Honor" grating upon my lawyerly sensibilities. In fact, no one throughout the evening addressed the judge as "Your Honor" or even "Sir," and these terms weren't uttered in the room until my turn at the end (more on that later).

After the opening pleasantries the judge simply recited the charge on the ticket, recited the plea offer from the city attorney, and asked the woman if she would plead guilty to the lesser offense. I found it unseemly that the presiding judge would be in the business of delivering messages on behalf of the prosecutor but I tolerated it for the sake of efficiency, and in any case didn't think a constitutional separation of powers challenge in the service of attempting to avoid a traffic fine would get me very far. The woman accepted the plea, answered "Yes" to all the judge's allocution questions, and the plea was entered. The judge asked the woman if she wanted to say anything before he imposed the fine. She declined, and the judge began doing something on his computer screen that would apparently lead him to the appropriate sanction for her legally fictitious conduct. I heard him say "No, that's too expensive" before finally arriving at the adjudicated amount, which was certainly a great sign, but I was still hoping someone would go up on a following too closely charge so I'd know exactly what to expect.

The pattern repeated for each of the defendants, largely without variation, though there were a few brief bursts of human interaction. One woman didn't feel comfortable entering the plea until she got some legal advice about her divorce (which was related in her mind for reasons that never became clear). The judge informed her, gently, that he couldn't give her legal advice and didn't want to hear about her divorce, and suggested she go out in the hallway to talk to someone and come back later. She did, and ended up taking the plea, though not before further attempts to tell the judge about her man-troubles. By far the most common charge was driving without insurance, which was generally mitigated by providing proof of subsequently-acquired insurance. One poor fellow had a number of rather serious charges on his ticket and the city attorney had decided to add another charge before he got to court, so he wasn't given a plea and had to appear for a proper hearing against the city attorney in the flesh. The true highlight of the evening came when a young, effeminate, and generally bewildered man stood to answer the handful of minor charges on his ticket. The judge dismissed two of the charges and offered a chance to plea to driving without a license, but offered a continuance so that the man could go out and get a license before pleading guilty. The man replied, "Judge, I don't know nothin' 'bout no court. What's a continuation?" After a few more minutes of similar dialogue the judge ordered a continuation and the man agreed to try and get a driver's license, though it was manifestly unclear as to whether he had any idea how to do so.

After the judge burned through the calendar and everyone else had left he noticed me sitting in the back and asked if I was early for the next calendar. I popped up and said "Yes, Your Honor," trying and utterly failing not to come off as officious and sycophantic.

"Well," the judge said, "come up and get your file from the clerk and we'll get you out of here."

This was a stroke of luck to be sure, as it looked like I would be done nearly an hour before I was even supposed to start. I identified myself to the clerk, and she located my file and handed me a green sheet of paper that explained my rights. I went straight to the podium assuming the judge would dive right in. I didn't find it necessary to thoroughly peruse the rights explanation given the fact that I had studied the general heap of garbage known as the rights of the accused ad nauseam for two Bar Exams. The judge noticed me standing like a dog waiting for his dinner and said, "Take a seat and read over that sheet of paper, memorize it, and I'll give you a quiz in a few minutes."

I sat down in the front row and glanced over the paper. The form distinguished between "offenses" and "infractions" and I had no idea which one I had been charged with, though the judge's lax approach to the various charges that he had dealt with before me suggested I didn't have much to worry about either way. Eventually he called me up and recited the charge, adding, "This was that morning that all those cars slid into each other on the freeway." I agreed with him though, somewhat shamefully, the fact was that the accident happened in dry, sunny conditions and there was no way to blame ice or any other interesting Colorado weather for what had happened.

The judge moved onto the plea offer, which was apparently completely unaffected by the property damage and made me wonder why the stupid police officer had made me go to court in the first place. In any case the judge and the city attorney were much more reasonable and I gladly accepted the meager fine and points penalty laid before me. Ten minutes later I was out the door with my debt to society paid via the swipe of my credit card by the onsite cashier.

It's tempting to say that I fought the Law and the Law won, but the fact is that neither of us put up much of a fight.

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This page contains a single entry by hb published on March 23, 2010 7:36 AM.

One Year of Junk Mail was the previous entry in this blog.

The I Write Like Experiment is the next entry in this blog.

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