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Just the TICKET : Hefty Fines Drive Motorists to Plead in Person for Clemency--and Even a Little Tenderness

January 26, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

If not for the sign out front that says "Orange County Harbor Municipal Court," the sprawling, low-slung building at the corner of Jamboree Boulevard and Birch Street in Newport Beach could be mistaken for some kind of bargain outlet having a big sale.

It's only 8 a.m. Monday morning, and already people are jostling for parking spaces, then rushing inside with their credit cards, checkbooks and wallets at the ready. Others are lining up at the row of windows outside, also prepared to pay up.

But these folks won't be walking away with any merchandise. All they'll take home will be little slips of paper, not very different from the ones they hold going in.

Welcome to traffic court.

With about 500,000 traffic tickets issued in Orange County every year, business is always booming for Harbor and the county's four other municipal courts.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 3, 1989 Orange County Edition Orange County Life Part 9 Page 6 Column 6 Life Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
The caption on the photograph above, published Jan. 26 in Orange County Life, identified the subject as struggling "to remain awake for his turn in traffic court." In fact, Horace Shepherd had accompanied a friend to court and was not a defendant in any action. A driver for a courier service, he says he has not had a moving violation in 51 years of driving.
PHOTO: Horace Shepherd

The overwhelming majority of those tickets can be handled without an appearance in court, says James R. Peterson, court administrator for Harbor. But an increasing number of offenders are going in anyway, in hope of getting a break or at least a bargain.

For one thing, says Commissioner Richard Sullivan, who will be presiding over one of two traffic courts here today, even a minor offense can set you back plenty these days, not to mention what it can do to your insurance rates.

It can be especially expensive if you just mail in a check for the amount of bail indicated on your ticket--that could well be more than twice what a judge would order you to pay.

"As a consequence, more and more people are coming to court to give an explanation to the judge," Sullivan says.

So much for that famous line from Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" in 1959: "Oh, Roger. Pay the $2!" Now it would have to be, "Pay the $200!" and that just doesn't have the same ring to it, somehow.

Here they come, then, stern expressions on their faces, pacing and glancing frequently at their watches, giving the impression that they'd rather be just about any place else right now--except jail, and for some, that's the alternative.

"You really can't blame the people," Sullivan says. "These are all local people. Out-of-towners (who get tickets) can't come to court and tell their story; they don't have that convenience. Not that it's a convenience."

Speeding, running red lights or stop signs, expired registrations, no insurance, broken windshields, unsafe lane changes--whatever the specific charges, these are all relatively minor infractions. The more serious cases, such as drunk driving, are heard in other courtrooms upstairs.

Some defendants come in to proclaim their innocence; their cases are scheduled for trial at a later date, which means another trip to court.

Others acknowledge their offense but figure it might help to offer an explanation or simply plead for mercy. And often they're right.

For example, Sullivan says, if a driver is caught speeding, an officer might "cite the person for going in excess of the speed limit and for unsafe speed. That just kicks the bail way the heck up into the clouds. Now the officer didn't intend to do that, but maybe he just doesn't understand the court system."

So when drivers in such situations show up before him, Sullivan says he throws out one of the charges. "Nobody in this court is going to punish the person twice for something like that," he says.

Others could have sent in a check and avoided a trip to court, but they forgot or just didn't get around to it. Months later, when they discover there's a warrant out for their arrest, they remember. But by then they're charged not only with a traffic violation but with failure to appear.

The truth be told--and why not, this is a courtroom, after all--the defendants aren't the only ones who would rather be doing something else. The judges feel almost the same way, albeit for a different reason: They would prefer dealing with something more interesting.

"I get so tired of listening to myself say the same things over and over," Sullivan says. "If the only thing I did, day after day, was traffic, I don't know if I could take it." Fortunately, Sullivan does get to deal with other kinds of cases as well.

While Sullivan is in his chambers attending to a few details and putting on his robe, bailiff Robert D'Alessandro is in the courtroom doing the warm-up.

No, he's not telling jokes to get everybody in a better mood. He's explaining how the process works, in the hope that things will go more smoothly for everyone involved.

"You can plead not guilty, guilty or guilty with an explanation," D'Alessandro says. He explains about traffic school, an option for those whose offenses are not too serious and who have not attended one in the last 2 years.

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