So, I Got Busted
Falling into A Speed Trap and Fighting A Traffic Ticket
“Dad, I don’t think I should drive;” my eldest son, Bryant, handed the car key back to me, “my neck’s killing me – I’ve probably slept on it the wrong way.”
It was early Labor Day morning. Bryant, a senior at NYU Stern, had come home the day before to pick up a few items that he left behind when he moved back in his dorm for the new school year. Always a loving mom, my wife kindly volunteered my service to give him a ride instead of letting him take the bus.
No problem. With a trace of chill in the air, the fall season had gotten off a beautiful start: the sky was so clear that it didn’t even look it was there; and the still-rising sun brushed everything on Earth with a touch of gold. That’s what I call great driving weather!
Sailing through Route 9, we reached the Parkway in half of the usual time. There were few souls on the road. No body would go to work on Labor Days; and many were probably still recovering from their hangovers, anyway. I wouldn’t be on the road this early had my very sociable son not decided to meet a few friends of his for lunch in the city.
Nothing was happening. The Altima was effortlessly gliding on the roadway, pleasantly humming and occasionally passing a few “slow” cars from the left lane. It was just too comfortable. Pretty soon Bryant started snoring in the passenger seat. Obviously he didn’t sleep enough the night before.
My mind started to wander. “This is quick, and I’m going to be there in no time. The Labor Day is young. Hmm, maybe I should go to Chinatown to pick up something delicious to bring home for lunch… That’s it!”
I got a little excited with this idea and my right foot just got a bit infusion of life. The car gladly complied and woke up from its sleepy hum. Perhaps I hung in the left lane a tad too long, but still nothing was happening.
Until a police car sitting on the center divider jumped into sight.
“What, I’m here already?” Like many New Jersey commuters, I am aware of this stretch of the Parkway where the speed limit drops abruptly from 65 to 55 and therefore creates an infamous speed trap for countless innocent motorist who simply drive fast.
But I was still caught off guard as my mind had been wandering. Then practiced instinct kicked in, and I took my foot off the pedal, signaled, eased into the next lane on the right, and followed the traffic as the car rolled past the state trooper.
The police car didn’t move. Good sign! Now it was in the rear view mirror, and it came out! No flashing lights? Maybe the guy’s just going somewhere else. Keep going! Oh, no, he just cut right behind me. Still no flashing lights. Stay calm! He’s probably just going to the next exit.
Then those lights on the roof of the cop car started spinning. “So, I got busted!” I resigned and reluctantly steered the car toward the right shoulder, found a nice patch of grass and stopped, hoping for a just a simple scolding and warning, given my clean driving record.
“What happened?” Bryant was oblivious as he was rubbing off the sand in his eyes. Some knocks on his window caused him to jump.
A square faced young trooper towered over the passenger side. “License, registration and insurance!” The fellow was not a talkative type; he grabbed my papers and quickly stepped back to his squad car. Obviously, he really enjoys his authority. “Your were going 83 in the 55 mile-per-hour zone.” These words he left behind chilled the air further.
I totally did not agree with him, but I absolutely understood that I must not exit the vehicle in this situation. So I had no way to argue, to attempt to bring his attention to my clean record, or simply ask for leniency before he put anything down on paper. Like meat on the chopping block, I could only sit there and wait, with my son, to whom I was supposed to be the role model.
After what felt like two years, the trooper strutted back, again to the passenger side window and handed back what I had just surrendered, plus that dreaded piece of cardboard paper. “There is information on the back for you to pay online or call the court to resolve the summons.” Now he talked.
Well, there was nothing I could do now. When I looked up at the rear view mirror after slipping the paperwork back into their respective places, the trooper was already gone.
Also gone was my proud clean driving record.
That left me with a $220.00 fine and four points that would stay on my driving record for the next three years, as I later learned. The state is nice enough to set up a website where people can search for their violations and pay online. Naturally my first impulse was to just send in the money and get it over with.
The fine, though hurts, is actually the cheap part. I suspect most accidental offenders like me choose this route and then go on with their lives. But those points, if I learned it correctly, would cost me $150 a pop in insurance premium per year. With four points, that would be $1,800 in three years. On top of that, I might lose about $60 per year in merit discount for five year, which would come to another $300. Added that $220 fine, did the math and I found myself a $2,320 big hole in my wallet for the next few years.
This made me feel sick. So I searched the web for ways to help me get better, starting with typing in “fight speed tickets in New Jersey”. The ever-helpful Google brought me great returns. I was amazed by the volume of services available to me, all of which offered “free consultation” and most “guarantee to eliminate/reduce points or money back.”
Encouraged, I immediately shot off several inquiries. The responses came quickly, from lawyers who claimed to have years of specialized experience in traffic cases. They sounded professional and even personal enough, but would set me back somewhere from $400 to $550 to handle my case. Kind of steep, but those are lawyers; what do you expect?
I paused and thought. If those guys are actually willing to stick out their necks with a money-back guarantee, then a case such as mine must be like a routine ground ball. Why not pull a do-it-yourself and see what happens? Laying out the extra $500 or so for the same result doesn’t make much sense to me.
So I dug some more into the Google results. It became clear that the worst thing to do after getting a traffic ticket is simply sending in the money, which is literally a guilty plea that leaves a door open to let whoever has a hand in the case do whatever they want with your offense, effectively eliminates any possibility of getting a better deal out of a bad situation. This is probably the one of the main reasons why an attorney almost always advise his client to plea not guilty first, even though he had been caught bloody handed killing some one.
Feeling somewhat certain, I phoned the municipal court as instructed by the traffic ticket to inquire about how to proceed. Much to my surprise, Ms. P, the court administrator sounded pleasant and willing to help. She briefly walked me through the procedure, suggested a not-guilty plea, and pointed me to speak to the prosecutor on the court date. She was pretty sure that I could get my points knocked off for $433 in total.
While $433 is a large sum, it looks like a bargain in comparison with the insurance premium increases I’d have to suffer had I pay the fine outright. And I wouldn’t need a lawyer to charge me $500 for this deal. I was going to beat this thing, on my own!
Now I was emboldened. Maybe I could get this case dismissed altogether! I searched some more. Well, the trooper stated on the summons that laser was used when he clocked me doing 83 mph. The weather condition was indeed clear; and there was indeed no car in front of me – No play here.
Perhaps I could challenge the accuracy of the laser equipment and the officer’s competency in operating it, as many online advocates suggested, and I could achieve this by requesting and examining the laser gun’s maintenance log and the manufacturer’s operating menu, as well as the officer’s training record, etc. through some “discovery motion”. But there was no official “discovery request form” existing anywhere. No wonder. Why would the authority give you help to gain an upper hand over them?
So I called the court again, and was told to send in a request letter, which would in turn be faxed over to the state police, who then would send me the material for a fee. But when and for how much? “ No idea.” I got no help here.
Some of the online folks advise against obtaining the discovery for the fear of aggrevating the prosecutors. Besides, the paperwork is required to be in court fifteen days prior to the hearing. Not enough time.
How about the trooper missing the court date so the case getting thrown out? Too much depends on luck.
In the end, I chickened out and settled back on waiting to speaking to the prosecutor.
For the next couple of weeks, my mailbox was flooded with letters from law firms offering to “protect the rights and interests” that I deserve. I’d heard of “ambulance chasers”, but never expected “ ticket chasers”. Who knew!
Finally the court date came in early October. I dressed up a little to make myself more presentable and left home an hour before court time, though the place was only thirty minutes away. I believed that I’d gotten plenty of schooling in the online community, but going in front of a prosecutor and a judge still made me perspire. I had no clear idea what would actually come out of this.
I got there half an hour early, but the hallway was already packed with people waiting for the court to open. Most of them were in really casual street clothes; some were still wearing their uniforms from work; and a couple of them donned peppy tailored suites – attorneys, I assumed.
The clerk at the sign-in window did not need much explanation from me. She found my information neatly listed on a computer printout, acknowledged that I wanted to speak to the prosecutor, then wrote down a number “6” on a tiny piece of paper and handed it to me before telling me to give it to the “the person at the door” when the court opened.
Time was passing in slow motion. The prosecutor come strolling in right before the court time and quickly disappeared into his office. He was a clean-cut middle-aged man who looked like he’d just gotten off the train from Wall Street.
The courtroom opened promptly at 5:30 pm and people slowly filed in. I submitted the paper to “the person at the door” – a young intern, who then instructed me to sit in a front section of the benches near the door. Apparently the fellows sitting around me, about three-dozen strong, had the same plan in mind – bargaining with the prosecutor.
The judge would not appear for another thirty minutes. The prosecutor came in first and announced that he’d call those who requested to speak to him in the alphabetical order, with the priority given to the ones represented by an attorney.
“Man, they are pro-business!” I shook my head. And with a last name that starts with a “w”, I accepted that a long night was in order for me. I opened the magazine that I’d brought with me, and tried to relax for a while.
The judge finally arrived. The Honorable “C” was a heavy-set in his late fifty’s or early sixty’s with gray hair. He spent what felt like fifteen minutes explaining the court rules and procedure; that he did not work for the police or the government but for the people; that he must hear cases represented by attorneys first, such and such, without stopping for a breath, all the while maintaining a poker face. This was business as usual for him.
I could not concentrate on the book anymore, so I might as well do some observation.
This is not a criminal court; so don’t expect any “Law and Order” type of dramas here. Besides various traffic violations, other cases came before the judge that night ranged from leaving the scene of an accident to neighbor harassment. Some of the cases were petty and ridiculous enough to make people laugh, but judge C kept his monotone going most of the time to show that he was all business.
However, the atmosphere suddenly turned tense when an office hauled in a twenty-something in handcuffs. You could hear that the whole courtroom gasped; and a surprise look escaped from judge C’s straight face. It turned out, this young man had missed so many court dates that a bench warrant had been issued for his arrest. And he was nabbed when he tried to pay some traffic fine at another court.
My stomach started growling; whatever snack I ate earlier had long moved down my digestive track. But I could only swallow my own saliva.
It seemed like another hour had past when I was finally called out with several others by the prosecutor. I still had to wait some more, though, because I am a “w”. But at lease I was outside now.
I struck up a conversation with some guy named Ed. He was a “veteran” in this kind of deals now after twenty-seven years of driving, I was told, and was there to “fix a few things” with the prosecutor. He was absolutely sure that I’d be able to get two points off, but not so much about four. When I mentioned that I had read online that some one did just that, he only shrugged and wished me good luck. He added, however, that he didn’t get his insurance premium increased with only two points on his driving record. That was a little comfort for me.
My turn. I wanted to tell the prosecutor that the trooper might have made a mistake, that I wasn’t a reckless driver and I had a clean record to show for it, that I wasn’t a menace to the society, and that I was willing to take responsibility and pay the fine and all the surcharges so please get my ticket reduced to zero point!
The prosecutor didn’t really look up when I walked in the door.
“Sit down here. So you were driving 83 - twenty-eight miles per hour over the limit. This is a four-point ticket, and I’m going to take off two points.”
He started to write down the numbers in a form.
“But sir, I’m here to ask that you take off all four points because…”
“I’m not giving it to you when you’ve gone over eighty miles an hour.”
“But I wasn’t even sure if I did actually drive that fast. Look, I have a clean…”
“Ignorance is not a defense. Tow points, $150 fine, $250 surcharge and $33 court fee for a total of $433. Now go back and wait in the courtroom for the judge!”
It became cleared that I was just a statistic to him; he was “just doing his job” and not there to listen to me. He seemed to be in a hurry to get every one out the door so he could pack up fast and go home.
Outside, Ed flashed a smirk with an “I told you so!” Well, he was right on with that two-point reduction. Let’s hope he’s correct about the no-premium-increase part, too.
By this time I couldn’t wait to see the judge, but it would be another half an hour before I had my chance. Though I realized virtually everyone in the courtroom would have to go through this, I still felt like I was the one who got singled out up there in front of the judge. All eye were shooting arrows at me, under the bright lights, with no place to hide. That was not a good feeling. It was humiliation, certainly.
“Were you traveling on the Garden State Parkway north bound near exit 37 on September 7, 2009 at 9:20 am?”
“Yes, your Honor.”
“Were you driving at the speed of sixty-nine miles per hour at that time?” Apparently with the two-point reduction the prosecutor “downgraded” my charge from doing 28 mph to just 14 over the limit.
“Yes, your Honor.”
“Has anyone forced you in any way to enter this guilty plea?”
“Y… No sir!” This time it was me who had to keep a straight face.
“Very well then. You may proceed to the cashier’s window and pay the $433 fine and surcharge. Have a good night.”
I wished I had a better one. But it wasn’t all that bad, either – at least I hit my minimum target. Hey, I am a glass-half-full type of guy.
The faithful Altima steadily crawled back onto the Parkway. Strait ahead, shining brightly was the huge mid-autumn moon. But I wasn’t in the mood for being romantic or poetic. I just wanted to go home.
And of course, the normally half-hour flight home turned into a forty-five-minute journey.
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