Day in Court

Copyright © 2006, Glenn Story

So my daughter was driving in Santa Cruz, a town she’s not all that familiar with. It was late at night and the left-turn lane onto the road she wanted to take was closed. She decided to turn left from the through lane even though she couldn’t trigger the green arrow from there. That was a bad idea made worse by the fact that a policeman saw her. To make matters worse, she didn’t have her purse with her.

He wrote her up for four violations:

  1. Running a red light.
  2. Failure to obey a traffic sign (road closed).
  3. Failure to carry her driver’s license
  4. Failure to carry proof of insurance

Total potential fine: over $1600.

The cop who stopped her told her to get the last two items signed off by showing her license and insurance card to a local policeman, but the Palo Alto police refused.

So yesterday we went to court.

It was a typical government building, somewhat rundown looking and rather bleak. There were official signs everywhere and offices filled with government clerks sitting at gray metal desks. But the walls were lined with some interesting photographs that I would have liked to have more time to examine.

Traffic court was in the basement.

To see the judge without being on the court calendar, you have to get there between 8 and 8:15. Despite the early hour there was a long line of people waiting for their chance at justice. All of them were armed with papers and excuses.

More official signs. Many supermarkets and local shops have signs that say if your check bounces you have to pay a $20 service charge. Here the sign read: “If your check is returned by the bank, a warrant will be issued for your arrest.”

There was a guy behind us in line who was either a lawyer or a lawyer-wanabe, explaining to anyone who would listen how the traffic courts routinely violate the law and trample on the rights of citizens.

When my daughter told the clerk at the window that she couldn’t get a sign-off, the clerk, said, “that’s ok, you can just show them to the judge.” I had hoped we would be able to avoid actually going to court, but no luck.

So we filed into the courtroom. More signs: “No guns or knives” and “no hats”. Hats? Good thing I don’t wear one.

Court was already in session when we entered, and the judge was lecturing someone on why they had to notify the DMV when they sold a vehicle. The defendant was making his excuses, which the judge didn’t buy. I whispered to my daughter not to make any excuses to the judge. The judge immediately announced, “There will be no talking or whispering in court.” She went on to explain that it was very nerve-wracking to stand before the judge, and to have people whispering behind you was quite distracting. I was surprised: the judge had some compassion for the people appearing before her. I hadn’t expected that.

The stream of people that came before the judge was actually quite interesting. The excuses each one had–and they virtually all had some excuse”were equally interesting, but mostly not convincing to the judge (or me). One woman said she had failed to appear for her previous court appearance because she had been in jail. Did she have any documentation for that? No. What dates had she been in jail? She couldn’t remember. The judge nevertheless dismissed the “failure to appear” charge. One young man was there on charges of trespassing on an ecological preserve–not even a traffic violation. Another young man was visibly unhappy with his outcome. The judge said sarcastically “You’re welcome.” When the defendant continued to act sullen she gave him a thorough tongue lashing. In many cases the judge dismissed charges “in the interest of justice”–a phrase that appealed to my daughter. In almost every case she reduced fines. And in all cases she explained clearly and carefully what the defendant had done wrong and why she was ruling the way she did.

Finally it was my daughter’s turn. She showed the judge her license and the mound of paper we had brought to prove we had insurance. (We had brought insurance cards, the policy, the renewal notices to document that she was covered for the car she was driving. My insurance agent had even given me a letter.) The judge said one insurance card was enough, and obviously knew the terms of our insurance company’s policies as well as (better than?) we did.

The judge asked my daughter what had happened that night. I held my breath. My daughter gave a concise factual description, free of “it’s not my fault” BS, but also free of needless self-incriminating detail. The judge asked her why she had done it. She said “I made a bad decision.” I don’t know whether she gave that answer because she has reached a level of maturity where she is willing to take responsibility for her actions—a level of maturity not demonstrated by most of the defendants that day—or by people in general in my cynical view. Or maybe she gave that answer because she’s savvy enough to know that’s the best answer to give. Whatever her reason—and I hope it was some of both—it was what the judge wanted to hear.

The judge dismissed the last two charges based on the documentation my daughter brought. Then she gave my daughter a somewhat complicated choice. She would dismiss the second count or she would let my daughter go to traffic school. In the former case the fine would be lower, but in the latter case my insurance wouldn’t be affected. (Normally a traffic conviction raises one’s insurance in California; going to driving school forestalls that.)

I went out and made a hurried call to my insurance agent. The conviction would indeed raise my insurance so I told my daughter she should take traffic school.

She was ordered to pay $831 in fines and was given a list of traffic schools.

I had expected the day to be boring. It was not.

I have never been to traffic court before. I have heard horror stories of injustice, lack of compassion, and bureaucracy. I found this judge to be just the opposite of all these—and I told her so.

I also found the judge’s explanations clear and articulate; precise in the way the law demands, but free of needless legal jargon. In fact I learned several things about traffic law from sitting there. And I always consider a day in which I learn something new to be a good day.

I hope my daughter learned something too—not only that perhaps she should drive more carefully. I hope she also learned that there can be justice in the American justice system. God knows that system has its faults and shortcomings. But the day on which there is an end to justice from the American legal system is the day that America ceases to live up to its ideals. Sometimes I fear that day is coming. But when I see a judge like this in—let’s face it—a rather menial job as judicial appointments go, take the time to care and be fair, then I feel like there’s hope.

My daughter drove home back “over the hill” (as people from Santa Cruz say). We somehow missed the on-ramp to the freeway and ended up taking Highway 9–a beautiful road that winds through the Santa Cruz Mountains. She stayed under the speed limit much of the way. It would be nice to think that’s because of the lesson learned from her recent brush with The Law. But in truth it’s because she was stuck behind a school bus most of the way.

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