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Law and The Border: Understanding the U.S. Court System

A fair, consistent and reliable court system is an important component of a free society. In my opinion, the U.S. court system is fair and consistent. Still, drivers who experience the court system in connection with transportation law violations,...

A fair, consistent and reliable court system is an important component of a free society. In my opinion, the U.S. court system is fair and consistent. Still, drivers who experience the court system in connection with transportation law violations, often find a different universe than the one portrayed on popular television shows.

Traffic and transportation law violations can arise in many situations, meaning that the court having jurisdiction over the matter can be a small town court near a lonely stretch of interstate highway, a busy court in a congested city, or anything in between. Practices and procedures can vary from state to state and locality to locality, but certain generalizations can be made.

Safety violations and other transportation law violations are different from the usual vehicle and traffic law violations.

Routine traffic violations are punishable by fines, and in most jurisdictions the driver can plead guilty and pay the fine by mail. In contrast, most transportation law violations carry more severe maximum penalties, and are characterized as misdemeanors under state law.

This means that the driver must typically appear in court in person, or through his attorney, even if he wants to plead guilty. Court sessions are usually scheduled for the evening. The person who goes to court under such circumstances is often surprised to see that his case is one of many – dozens or more – all scheduled at the same time. That means that justice will be meted out in an efficient process that normally does not allow any time to present lengthy explanations to the judge.

Most states adopt the U.S. DOT safety regulations and are empowered to enforce those regulations at the local level. The prosecutor in each case depends upon the size of the municipality. In large cities, the state is represented by the District Attorney’s office. In large towns and villages, one or two individuals may be designated as the prosecutor.

However, many small towns have no District Attorney or Town Prosecutor, and the driver may be surprised to see that the person he faces is the same trooper who issued him the ticket. In order to have a chance to discuss the case and arrive at a disposition, the driver must plead “not guilty.” The designated prosecutor will meet with the driver or his attorney to discuss the charges and a possible resolution. The resolution can be a dismissal of the charges, an offer to accept a guilty plea to a lesser offense, or a recommendation for the fine associated with the original offense.

All of this is done outside of the presence of the judge, and the final “recommendation” of the prosecutor is handed to the judge, who then reviews the matter, accepts the guilty plea, and assesses the fine or penalty. It is highly unusual for the judge to not accept the recommendations of the prosecutor. In a well-run, efficient courtroom, there is a steady stream of activity as individuals discuss the matter with the appropriate prosecutor, files are transferred to the judge, the judge imposes the fine, and the person pays the fine.

The person going to court with the desire to offer an excuse or explanation to the judge will find that the judge has no time or interest for such matters.

The vast majority of cases are resolved through an initial plea of not guilty, discussion and agreement with the prosecutor/judge as to an appropriate disposition, and subsequent guilty plea to the agreed-upon charge. Sometimes, however, the driver believes he is subject to an improper application of the law, or an improper assessment of the facts, for which a valid defense can be made. If the evidence is persuasive, the prosecutor may agree to dismiss the charges during the pre-hearing discussion phase.

If the prosecutor is not persuaded, the driver has the option of maintaining his plea of “not guilty,” and asking for a trial.

This is the only alternative for an aggrieved driver who wants his full “day in court.”

Typically, requests of this nature will be deferred as the last item on the agenda, meaning that all of the dozens of other individuals in court that night, with offenses ranging from speeding tickets to drunken driving to other petty non-traffic matters, must be disposed of before the judge will give a full hearing.

For individuals to be successful, and to receive fair treatment, they must be able to do more than merely state their case.

A winning formula almost always involves carefully prepared documentation and/or testimony of credible witnesses to overcome the evidence and testimony of the prosecutor and police officer.

Despite the attempt to handle matters efficiently, an evening in court often takes much time. Accordingly, if you are in that position, we have one final piece of advice: Bring a good book to read.

Daniel Joyce is a partner with the Buffalo N.Y. law firm Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel LLP. He can be reached at (716) 843-3946.

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