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Let's Synchronize Our Terminology for Traffic Court

January 26, 1989|JAN HOFMANN JAN HOFMANN

Nobody gets cited for failure to understand what's going on in traffic court.

But plenty of people unnecessarily pay higher fines, miss opportunities to keep their records clear or even get arrested because they don't understand the procedures.

Bailiff Robert D'Alessandro, who works with Commissioner Richard Sullivan of Orange County Harbor Municipal Court, sees so many people making the same mistakes over and over that he put together a presentation on how to make going to court for a traffic ticket as painless as possible.

So far, D'Alessandro, an Orange County marshal, has taken his presentation to high schools in the Harbor Court's jurisdiction. He also wants to make it available to civic groups and traffic schools. Life on Wheels asked him to give some highlights.

First of all, he says, you don't get a ticket. You get a citation (notice to appear), a warning or a courtesy notice.

And when an officer gives you a citation, he asks you to sign it. That means you promise to appear in court on or before the day specified. Or you can pay by mail or hire a lawyer.

Too many people don't pay attention to the or before, so they wait until the last minute to go to court, D'Alessandro says. Or they simply ignore their promise to appear, which means they may be cited for failure to appear.

"Or they say, 'I didn't have the money, so I didn't come in,' " he says. "Well, if you don't have the money, coming in is the one thing you should do. Otherwise, it's going to cost you a lot more. It's not that hard to get more time to pay."

Then there are the misconceptions about the so-called "fix-it ticket."

"People say, 'It's only a fix-it ticket,' " D'Alessandro says. "But a fix-it ticket is like any other kind of citation, except you have to show proof that the problem has been taken care of. People think they can't get fined for a fix-it ticket. That's not true."

Too many people think the court and the Department of Motor Vehicles are the same agency, D'Alessandro says: "We have people who are cited for not having current registration, for example, and they go to the DMV and the person there says, 'OK, you're all taken care of.'

"They take that literally, and when the warrant goes out because they didn't come in, they say, 'But the lady at the DMV told me it was all taken care of.' "

D'Alessandro also explains in his presentation--as he does every morning before court begins--about pleas of guilty and not guilty. "A lot of people plead not guilty when they're not sure what they're not guilty of," he says. "Say they were doing 75 in a 55 zone. Well, they say they're not guilty because 'I was only going 70.' But they're charged with going in excess of 55 miles an hour."

By the time such a case has gone to trial, he says, it's too late for the driver to ask to go to traffic school, because the citation is already on the record.

Other defendants think they don't have a problem because an unregistered or defective car they were driving belonged to someone else. "Or they say, 'I sold the car.' Well that only helps in terms of dealing with the DMV. That doesn't make the citation go away," D'Alessandro says.

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