Monday, July 29, 2019

Your first traffic court appearance - part 1

Are you in court for a traffic ARRAIGNMENT?
Not this kind of rain
This is the date indicated on your citation/ticket, or otherwise called your first court appearance.

In Southern California, the vast majority of folks who receive a traffic ticket either pay the fine BEFORE the court date on the ticket [so they don't have to show up], or show up at the first hearing, plead guilty or no contest, pay the fine, and put it behind them.  If you really want to do either of those, please do.  At least you took care of it.
I am guilty!
Failure to appear is a misdemeanor in CA and generally results in (1) a bench warrant for your arrest, (2) your driver's license suspended, and (3) an additional fine of $300+.  Receiving a ticket is bad enough.  Don't makes things worse for yourself.
This bird is having a bad [hair] day
A “no contest” plea has the same basic effect as a guilty plea in the criminal/traffic case, but can't be used against you in a civil case.  For example, if you ran a red light and crashed into someone, you can plead “no contest” and pay the fine.  This plea can't be used against you if/when the driver of the car you hit sues you for personal injury.  However, if you plead “guilty” in the traffic case, your admission of guilt can [read: will] be used against you in the civil case.  So basically, best to plead no contest.
I typed "no contest" into Wikimedia and this was the first image
Showing up in court, rather than just paying the fine, does have some benefits.  For example, you can request a lower fine, a payment plan, or to convert your fine to community service.
In SoCal, most community service is picking up trash on the freeway or the beach
Next week – deciding whether to fight the ticket.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Did you receive a “fix it” ticket?

So you received a "fix-it" ticket.  I'm actually expecting to receive one shortly, because my windshield was hit by a rock a few months ago, which gave it a [formerly] little star just behind the rear-view mirror.  But I came out to the parking lot after work one day a few weeks ago, to find it looking like this:
But, always wanting to count my blessings, at least it [currently] doesn't look like this:

Although the end result is the same - I have to replace the windshield.  The only benefit for having it looking like the second photo above is that I wouldn't be able to put it off.

But you, being a conscientious person and/or having a firm deadline called your "court appearance date",  have to take care of your fix-it ticket.  First, go to your state court's website.

Click here for the traffic self-help section for California.

Click here for the Los Angeles County traffic court information section.

Read the information because lots of times, you'll be able to find answers to your questions. You can sometimes do other things like reschedule your appearance to a date that's more convenient for you [not like it's ever convenient to go to court, but you get the idea], pay your ticket online and avoid a court appearance entirely, and other things.

Next, read the ticket. If the box is checked that the ticket is for a “correctable violation”, you need to have the problem corrected and bring proof of correction to court on or before the date shown on the ticket.

There are two types of corrections for missing documents [driver's license, registration, insurance].
This is NOT me
First, you have the required document but it wasn't in your car at the time you were stopped. Isn't that like Murphy's Law in action?  The ONE day you forget your driver's license, is the day you're stopped for your expired registration or cracked windshield.  And you'd have probably just received a warning EXCEPT that you didn't have your license with you.  Ggggrrrrrr. 

Second, you don't have the required document and you need to obtain it.

For the first problem, bring the document to your court hearing. In California your fine will be reduced and the ticket will be dismissed. For the second problem, obtain the required documentation and bring it to the hearing. You may not receive a reduced fine, but you'll have been a conscientious person and cleared the violation.

For problems with your car [like my cracked windshield], generally you need to have those repaired. So get your broken taillight or cracked windshield or too-dark window tinting or bald tires fixed [or replaced] and bring the car to a police station to be signed off. Then bring the signed ticket to your hearing.

Annoying and a hassle, but you won't risk any increased fines, jail time, or evening news exposure from Aunt Marge.

Tell us in the comments about your current vehicle problem that you're - like me - putting off having repaired!

Next week, handling your traffic violation. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

So you received a traffic ticket

We all know that sinking feeling when we see this in our rear view mirror:
Or we drive by this:
It means - the dreaded traffic ticket.

In California, at the bottom of the ticket [the formal name is “citation”] is a date, time, and courthouse address.  Under that is a statement that says something like “without admitting guilt, I promise to appear at the date/time/place indicated above.”  That's where you signed, promising to appear.

If you don't appear on or before that date, lots of bad things can result.

Okay - maybe not this bad
A warrant can be issued for your arrest, your driver's license can be suspended, and additional fines can be added.  Then the next time you're stopped for a traffic violation, Murphy's Law will dictate that you'll have your 85-year-old great-aunt Marge in the car with you.  You know the one.  She's the lady who everyone in your family calls “little miss busybody” because she's always gossiping about family matters.
Your Great-Aunt Marge
Not only will you be embarrassed to be pulled over by the police, you'll be hauled off to jail on the outstanding warrant along with the additional charge of driving on a suspended license, which is generally a misdemeanor.  None of this is fun, except to Marge who WAS THERE WHEN IT ALL HAPPENED.  Pretty soon your unfortunate predicament will be reported on the evening news and you'll need to change your name, have plastic surgery, and join the witness protection program.
Don't let that happen.  Write your court date in LARGE BLACK PERMANENT MARKER on your calendar, enter the date into your phone/computer/PDA/whatever you use.  Tape a note to the back side of your front door.

And, if you accidentally miss your appearance date, go to court immediately to take care of it.  You'll probably still be looking at an increased fine, but the license suspension and the warrant can be removed.  Sorry Aunt Marge!

Tell us in the comments about your Aunt Marge.

Next week, how to clear a “fix it” ticket.

Monday, July 8, 2019

You found the courtroom! Now what?

If your jury panel was called for trial selection, just wait outside the courtroom until the bailiff lets you in.
Once inside, you'll usually be seated in the audience, called the “gallery”, until your name is selected to be seated in the jury box.
Here's a jury box in Ohio
Here's a jury box in Nebraska
Here's a jury box in Kansas
Here's a jury box in Texas
Then the judge and attorneys will ask the jurors questions to determine which ones will be selected to decide the case.

If you're in court to attend a hearing on your own case, check the wall outside the courtroom door.  You should find a list of the cases on calendar for that day, sometimes on a cork board and other times in a glass display case.

This courthouse is in Arkansas
Here's one page from a recent calendar in downtown Los Angeles.
Find your case name/number.  Next to your case will be a calendar number.  See there on the left?  Remember that number.  That's how you check in.  At least, that's how you check in if you're in court in Southern California.  For attorneys, we write the calendar number and the party we represent on our business card, or two cards if the courtroom has a court reporter.

In many courtrooms, the bailiff will ask you to sit on a specific side of the courtroom based on whether you are plaintiff or defendant in the case.  Plaintiff's side is closest to the jury box.  Sometimes there's even a placard on counsel table.

This is the defense table
So if you're a plaintiff, you'll sit in the gallery on the side with the jury box.  If you're a defendant, you'll sit on the other side.  Since the whole point of “going to court” is because the parties have a dispute, this is one step the bailiffs take to keep the courtroom as orderly and non-confrontational as possible, at least until the hearing starts.

Before you go inside the courtroom, TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE.

Sometimes this is okay, other times not
If your phone makes noise while the judge is on the bench, most of the time the bailiff will send you out into the hallway.  Sometimes this means you miss your hearing.  Other times, the bailiff will confiscate your phone.  If you're lucky, you'll get it back when your hearing is finished, but I've been in some courtrooms where you don't get it back until 4:30 in the afternoon.  Ouch.

Fun cell phone anecdote #1:  Usually the bailiff will give a speech before the judge comes out, informing everyone of the consequences of their phone making noise.  Then the judge comes out and things proceed.  One morning about 30 minutes after the judge came out, a phone rang.

From the front of the courtroom.

The judge grinned
sheepishly, reached under his robe, retrieved his OWN PHONE, shut it off, and handed it to the bailiff.

Fun cell phone anecdote #2:  I was waiting for a small claims trial to finish.  The defendant didn't show up, so all the plaintiff had to do was prove his case and he would have judgment in his favor.  During plaintiff's presentation, his cell phone rang.  [This happened to me once, and I smacked my pocket to shut it off, then apologized profusely to the judge who still ordered the bailiff to take my phone until my hearing was finished.  Now I usually put my phone on vibrate AND airplane mode before I even enter the courthouse.]


Everyone else in the courtroom was stunned.  We sat there with our mouths hanging open, staring at this plaintiff, or at the judge, or at the bailiff, wondering what would happen.

The judge sat there patiently while the plaintiff concluded his call.  No one moved. We may not have even been breathing.  Once the call was finished, the judge said “that call must have been very important to you.”  The plaintiff acknowledged that yes, it was a very important call, which is why he interrupted his trial to take it.  He then thanked the judge for his consideration.

The judge responded “you now have a decision to make.  Which is more important to you?  This trial, or your phone?  If you choose your phone, you can keep it and I'll grant judgment in favor of DEFENDANT.  If you choose this trial, I'll grant judgment in YOUR favor but you'll have to surrender your phone until TOMORROW MORNING.  Which do you choose?”

The man chose his phone and lost the case.

Turn off your phone.

Monday, July 1, 2019

You're inside but where's the courtroom?

The least populated county in California is Alpine County, population 1120 in 2017.
Alpine County, California
It is located high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, with elevations between 4,500 and 11,500 feet above sea level.
Welcome to Alpine County
The county seat is a town called Markleeville.
Downtown Markleeville

It has one courthouse with one courtroom and two judges.
Markleeville courthouse
In Los Angeles County, there are currently 38 courthouses in operation.
Los Angeles County
The Catalina courthouse has one courtroom and is open every other Friday in the morning only.  This courthouse serves the 4100 folks who live on Catalina Island.
Avalon, Catalina Island
Because Los Angeles is the most  populous county in California, all the other courthouses have more than just one part-time courtroom.

Courthouses with numbered courtrooms include downtown Los Angeles civil courthouse with courtrooms 1 through 99 on nine floors.  It's not that easy tho.  For example, it starts with 1, 1A [both on the 5th floor], 2, 2A, 2B, 2C [all on the 2nd floor], 2D [on the 6th floor].  After that, it's a normal progression through 99 with certain numbers skipped.  I have no idea why.

Here's a courtroom number 205A, see the sign on the right?
Courthouses with lettered courtrooms include Norwalk, with courtrooms A through Z on seven floors with certain letters skipped.

Then to really mess with your mind, there are courthouses with both lettered and numbered courtrooms.  For example, in Compton the courthouse has twelve floors and courtrooms are labeled 1 through 14, 260 and 261, A through Q, and “traffic” which apparently wasn't important enough to be assigned any number or letter.

So what do you do?  If you're in court for a traffic hearing, those courtrooms are usually on the first or second floor and are reasonably easy to find.  Just ask one of the Sheriff deputies at the security checkpoint and you'll be on your way.

Otherwise, you'll usually be able to find a marquis on the wall by the elevators/escalators with a list of courtrooms and what floor they are on. 
Check the paper you brought with you [you did bring it, right?] to find the courtroom number/letter.
The last line on the middle right shows the courtroom number
Otherwise, you might see several large screens that list the names of people who have a case on the calendar for that day.  Here's an example of one such screen.  Next to your name will be the courtroom number/letter.
If all else fails, find a court employee and ask for directions!

Let us know in the comments your last time trying to find where to go.

Come back next week to learn what to do once you find the courtroom.