Adventures in Traffic Court

Ransom Bergen, Staff Writer

The date is Tuesday, Jan 14. Traffic Court, Department 12 of the Santa Barbara Courthouse, is an anxiety-stricken place. Fingers tap armrests in agitation. The bailiff passes out laminated informational sheets, which everyone immediately begins to read in silent frenzy. A sign taped askew to the wall forbids beverages, yet all present look in desperate need of coffee.

Tension breaks somewhat when the judge strides in, smiling broadly, nine minutes late.

From that moment forward, the pace of the proceedings moves rapidly as the judge calls out cases one at a time. Nearly all plead “No Contest⁠” — a different admission than a “Guilty” plea that often provides a reduced fine and traffic school (which helps keep insurance costs down). A lucky few find their case dismissed when the officer responsible for citing their alleged infraction fails to show.

However, despite the risk of a hefty fine and suspension of the privilege of traffic school, five people decide to brave trial. Three of these wield briefcases as defensive shields against the blind impartiality of justice. Two just seem to be winging it.

All lose. In fact, only two of the five refrained from admitting to having committed the infraction during testimony.

There are three ways for someone to win in a traffic trial, and each is very difficult. 

First, one can prove that they did not commit the alleged infraction. This is quite hard considering the officer has access to security cameras, traffic cameras, dashboard cameras, and radar guns, as well as having training to assess vehicle speeds on sight. They have detailed reports to read out verbatim, and, typically, years of practice enduring this bureaucratic drudgery. Most defendants, meanwhile, have only a few half-remembered impressions to relay. None of the five who went to trial brought forward witnesses or had any photographic proof. It became a matter of one’s word against another, and the court generally favors the much more polished words of the police.

Second, one can indicate to the court that the officer in question could not have reliably seen the alleged infraction actually take place. Large hedges, poorly designed intersections, and flaking street paint are the defendant’s friends here. However, this defense requires meddling with complicated geometry. 

Third, one can try to get their case dismissed by working the system to their advantage. Unfortunately, most people have no idea how the system works well enough to succeed. 

That didn’t stop one man from trying. He had mailed a request to the Sheriff’s department requesting it send him back all pertinent pieces of evidence relating to his case, or “discovery,” within thirty days, as was his right. Specifically, he wanted dash-cam footage. When all he received was the officer’s statement, he must have thought his victory assured, as failure to comply with a discovery request is grounds for dismissal.

Alas, the reason the Sheriff’s department had not mailed him dash-cam footage was because there was no dash-cam footage. The deputy had written up the infraction with no evidence but that of his eyes alone. As a result, it became one person’s word against another, and the judge sided with the police. The man was slapped with a $400 fine.