Polite cooperation wins a warning. Sign on the line, tell the cop, 'Have a nice day and be safe out there,' and carefully drive away.
BY BILL DIVEN
So you’re cruising the streets of Albuquerque or Bernalillo County when red lights start flashing in your rear-view mirror. Maybe you were in a hurry, didn’t buckle up, or ignored the no-right-on-red sign. Or maybe you really don’t know why the law singled you out but know aren’t carrying your driver’s license.
Now what? Sign the ticket, mail the fine, take the points toward suspending your license, hand your insurance company an excuse to raise your rates? Or exercise your right to see a judge at Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court?
Traffic court makes you both defendant and defense lawyer unless you decide to hire an attorney or change your mind and pay the fine. You can fight the ticket on your own, though, as explained by a former judge, an ex-court insider, Albuquerque attorney Tom Clear and a driver who’s been down this road four times:
Success begins with absolute courtesy of the yes-ma’am, no-ma’am variety. Have your license, registration and proof of insurance ready to hand over.
By policy, officers are supposed to record on lapel video or belt recorder everything you do and say to use against you and to protect themselves. Admit nothing, even knowing why you were pulled over.
Polite cooperation wins a warning. Sign on the line, tell the cop, “Have a nice day and be safe out there,” and carefully drive away.
Cited anyway? Request a traffic arraignment court date on Wednesday afternoon through Friday, when court tends to move quicker. The officer should provide you a brochure on court procedures. Signing the ticket is not an admission of guilty.
Check the fine print on your ticket: If the “Statute” box is checked, you’ve been cited under the State Motor Vehicle Code. If the “Ordinance” box on your ticket is checked, it’s the Uniform Traffic Code, which allows a city or county ordinance to set significantly higher and mandatory fines. There’s no negotiating and no driver school.
Remember your surroundings for your defense: Did the officer have clear line of site? Was other traffic speeding around you? Bring your copy of the ticket to every court visit. Also check it for the proper statute for your alleged infraction. Wrong statute? Case dismissed.
You can settle a simple “paperwork offense” such as not carrying your license, no proof of insurance, or a broken taillight by bringing proof you were legal or have fixed the problem to court on your court date.
Otherwise, arrive at court 30 minutes before your scheduled arraignment shown on your ticket. Meet with the city attorney acting as prosecutor and respectfully try to cut a deal to present to the judge. The cleaner your record, the better the chance for a deal to your liking.
Shoot for a 90-day deferral, which wipes away the ticket if you’re lawful for three months. The judge may tack on Driver Improvement School at $25 or, for more serious violations, Aggressive Driver School ($90), plus court costs of as little as $20. After 90 days, go back to court to confirm the case is dismissed.
If the attorney won’t deal, the judge might. State your defense, your good – or at least decent – record and your good-faith effort to drive safely. Try for Driver Improvement School, although you can attend just once in 18 months. As a last out, offer to do community service, which may be as simple as eight hours helping an animal shelter or other public agency do their good work.
If all else fails, plead not guilty, agree to another $20 in court costs, get a hearing date before a different judge and roll the dice on whether the cop who cited you shows up. Again, arrive early, watch for your cop, who will be acting as prosecutor, and try to cut a deal (in the hallway when court is in session). If the cop was a jerk on the street, maybe he or she was just having a bad day. If the cop doesn’t appear, as happens surprisingly often, case dismissed.
Still no deal you like? Ask the judge to order the cop to provide you with a copy of the video or audio recording of your traffic stop and get another court date. Make sure the cop knows where to send the recording.
No recording? Oops. Cop’s case just weakened as you politely stand your ground. If the tape shows you being nice and the cop behaving badly, you might want to show it to a lawyer.
Your next court visit is a second dice roll on your cop not showing up. Note, however, overtime pay is an incentive for cops to come to court when they’re off duty.
If you done your part and all goes well, the judge will see your side and either find you not guilty or agree to a deferred sentence, Driver Improvement School, or community service. If not, you’re out the original fine plus court costs, but you can say you were a player in the American justice system.
— Bill Diven is a freelance writer who lives in Placitas.
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