Traffic tickets: Putting up the good fight

– It’s bound to happen to almost every driver at some point,
while coasting down an open road, in a hurry or just not paying
attention. Flashing red and blue lights appear in the rearview
mirror, closing in quickly. A ticket is sure to follow.
By Lori Stuenkel

Gilroy – It’s bound to happen to almost every driver at some point, while coasting down an open road, in a hurry or just not paying attention. Flashing red and blue lights appear in the rearview mirror, closing in quickly. A ticket is sure to follow.

Some drivers will try to sweet-talk their way out of the citation, but once it is issued, most will simply pay the ticket without another thought.

But what happens when drivers insist the police officer’s wrong, and want to fight the ticket?

If a recent afternoon in South County traffic court is any indication, those who fight tickets by pleading not guilty are gambling that the officer who wrote the ticket won’t show up on the day of the trial. Out of nine people who were present for their trial in Santa Clara County Superior Court, six had their cases dismissed because the officer didn’t show up. Two were found guilty by the commissioner, after he listened to evidence from the officers and the defendants. One pleaded guilty, but the fines were waived.

One California Highway Patrol officer said that courts tend to rule in favor of police when tickets are challenged.

“I win most of my cases, and the reason I win most of my cases is because I write good tickets,” said Officer Chris Armstrong, spokesman for the Gilroy/Hollister area station. He said 5 percent of the 100 tickets he writes each month are challenged. “As long as it’s a good ticket, it’s an obvious violation, the judge most of the times will believe what we say.”

To write a “good ticket,” an officer makes sure he pulls over the car he or she saw violate the law, avoids errors on the ticket itself and generally cites drivers for blatant traffic violations – not mistakes that may easily be explained away, Armstrong said.

When a drivers receive their traffic tickets, they can either pay the fine immediately or attend traffic school – pleading guilty – or contest the ticket in court – pleading not guilty. Completing traffic school keeps the ticket off a driver’s record, but the traffic school option is removed once a driver pleads not guilty.

The court then schedules an appearance and subpoenas the officer. Both the officer and the driver have the option of delaying the trial once.

“They should allow one continuance for each side, if there is a valid reason,” Armstrong said.

If the officer still doesn’t show up for the trial, the case is dismissed. At the South County courthouse in San Martin recently, one speeding case was dismissed because neither the driver nor the officer was present. In another case, the driver hired a lawyer and brought three witnesses with him to his trial for turning without using a signal. The officer wasn’t there, however, and the ticket was dropped.

On the day of the trial, the driver may change his or her plea to guilty and pay the fine. If the plea is still not guilty, the officer presents the case to the judge, after which the defendant gets to do the same. Both sides may also present evidence and call witnesses, and drivers can ask the officer questions.

One man who was ticketed on U.S. Highway 101 on April 22 for passing on the right shoulder when it was unsafe or illegal to do so fought the citation on Tuesday. The CHP officer who wrote the ticket said the man tried to pass two big rigs on the right because traffic was moving slowly past a collision. The driver contended he passed in a merging lane, and presented Commissioner Gregory Saldivar with photographs he took at the scene, but the officer said the man continued past the merge lane and was actually on the shoulder.

Saldivar found the man guilty and fined him $130.

Another man who fought a ticket Tuesday left the courtroom fortunate he escaped without a misdemeanor arrest or a forced driver’s license re-test. He was ticketed last August for driving more than 110 miles per hour on 101. CHP Officer Matt Ramirez was on the Coyote Creek Golf Drive off-ramp when he spotted a red Chevrolet Corvette traveling at an unusually high rate of speed and passing other cars on the road. Ramirez told the commissioner that he “floored it.”

“I observed that I was not catching this vehicle by any way or means,” he said.

He drove 130 mph in an attempt to catch up with the Corvette, and when he got closer, paced it at more than 110 mph. He finally pulled over the car on Highway 85, after it slowed to about 65 mph to merge, he said. At the time, the driver did admit to going faster than 80 mph, but he challenged Ramirez in court.

“My question is, how does he know the car he pulled over is the same car he saw speeding, or did he pull over the first red Corvette he saw?” the man said. “I saw three Corvettes on the way to court here. There’s more than one of us on the road.”

Commissioner Saldivar was not impressed.

“I find your driving on 101 that evening … to be dangerous and the fact that you during the trial basically did not admit to anything … is a concern for me also,” he said. “It’s borderline reckless driving.”

He tried to force the man to re-test for his driver’s license, but because he was an Oregon resident, Saldivar could not. Instead, he slapped the man with a $680 fine.

Aside from paying for the ticket, drivers will face higher insurance premiums. According to information provided by Al Pinheiro Insurance Agency, a 30-year-old man or woman driving a 2001 Honda Civic with no tickets will pay $680 for a six-month term. That increases to $792 for one ticket, $1,426 for two minor tickets, and $1,920 with three minor tickets. Following a drunken driving violation – which is a misdemeanor arrest – that driver would pay $1,970.

There are plenty of Web sites that offer tips about how to handle a traffic violation stop, and many more that sell tips. Several frequently-offered suggestions aim to help a driver act forgettable, seemingly so that an officer will be less inclined to appear at a court date.

Among the more common tips: Accept the ticket at the time and avoid lame excuses; consider hiring an attorney; understand the charges; and carefully prepare your defense.

Dealing with a ticket

– Information about dealing with

traffic tickets

– Fighting traffic tickets**

*These sites offer products for sale, but have tips posted or in e-mail as well.

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