Today I had the pleasure of sitting through traffic court. My case was 50th in order and I got to see about 30 people all of whom pled “guilty” or “no contest” to an average of three charges per person. 20 people or 40%, got bench warrants as “no shows”. Some were deemed a flight risk and assigned $15,000 in bail. Most, as the judge passed them to Madame Clerk, were termed mere “standard procedure”. Of the ones that appeared, most missed their first appearance date and had the additional “failure to appear charge” with a $235 fine. “Set by Sacramento. So, direct your complaints there,” said the judge. Next most common was possession of marijuana with a fee of 158$, “the only misdemeanor for which the California legislature actually bans jail time. Don’t ask me why,” remarked the judge. Speeding, running stop signs, illegal left turns, no insurance, and everybody pled “guilty” “guilty”, “guilty, your honor”.
Most speeding infractions were eligible for traffic school for an additional 24$. (Only one person declined.) Those who could not afford to pay had the option of “working it off”. One woman who came with a small child was there because she did not work off her fine the first time around. “I was pregnant, your honor.” She was given an additional six months to account for a 540$ fine.
The case which compels itself to be featured started out quite uneventfully; a charge for “illegal u-turn”, on the highway as it turned out 178$; and “failure to keep a logbook” 540$. The judge asked the tractor trailer driver who evidently was responsible for keeping some kind of record, “How bad was your log?” “I failed to record a filling stop, your honor.” The judge continued scanning the report, “I see there was an accident. So you learned the hard way not to make a u-turn on the highway. How serious was it?”
The driver then leaned into the microphone and gently placed “fatal” on the record. The judge seemed puzzled how a fatal accident could yield two minor infractions. It was the first time he’d seen it. My read of the rest of the audience uncovered a lack of concern. Everyone was tending to their own sweaty palms. Imagine this black man in a suit, in a rural courtroom, confessing that his truck got caught in the median and stuck out across the highway and a human lost his life. “He ran across my triangles and flares, your honor.” “Hmmm, the report does attribute the responsibility for the accident to the other driver. Strange… but, it’s not up to me to make the determination. I just add up the numbers. How do you plead?” The driver pled “no contest”, so that later he can claim not to have pled guilty. “That will be 718$ will you be taking care of that today or delaying for an additional court fee of 30$?” “I’ll be taking care of that today.” And with that he bowed his head and left the courtroom.
My arraignment was called. I pled “not guilty” and demanded a Trial by Written Declaration. Uneventfully granted with a continuance for two months for discovery. I was the first to plead “not guilty”. And then I left the courtroom.