Traffic court fix can be just the beginning

March 04, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Well, God be praised and all that, there's at long last a proposal in the Maryland General Assembly to save time, money and aggravation by having cops only appear for traffic cases in which defendants intend to do the same. No more no-shows for speeding tickets. If you don't pay your fine by mail because you want your day in court, you'll have to ask for one.

It's a beautiful thing, and I hope it passes.

I have seen a modest version of hell: cops showing up for trial, the presumption being that the motorists they had ticketed intended to appear and contest their speeding tickets. But 30 percent to 40 percent of the time, the alleged violators never post, and you have a clerk standing in the fluorescent glow of a courtroom calling out names in bureaucrat monotone: "Lizzie Borden here? Al Capone? Tonya Harding?" Hardly anyone responds, and your eyes start to glaze, but you can still make out five bored cops leaning against walls or sitting on benches, and you wonder: "Haven't they got something better to do?"

It's all too bad, because traffic cases have such potential as entertainment.

It's Liar's Court, and you almost always hear some good ones. ("I had to go the bathroom, your honor ... I was falling sleep, your honor, and I thought a higher speed would keep me alert ... I wasn't speeding, your honor, I was driving downhill." I've used that last one myself.)

But so much of the time, motorists cited for speeding don't come to court.

So now there's legislation to put the burden on drivers to ask for a trial. Otherwise, you're mailing in your fine.

Why did it take so long to get this suggestion out of the suggestion box?

No-shows have been a costly frustration for years, and supporters of this change say Maryland is one of only three states that still don't require motorists to request a trial.

Courts and criminal procedure are slow as cold molasses to change, probably because those engaged like it that way. Let's face it, time is money, and every hour is a billable hour.

Still, over the years, I've made a couple of suggestions that would streamline court procedures. So while we're considering a common-sense suggestion that so many in law enforcement and lawmaking appear to endorse, I would like to make them again.

Mine have to do with jury selection, something prime for improvement.

The process takes too long, and it annoys citizens to the point that many don't want to participate. So, I say, use technology to make it easier.

All those questions the judge asks during voir dire -- the information-gathering process that can take hours, even days -- could be answered well in advance. Jury summonses arrive at our homes several weeks before we're due to serve, plenty of time for citizens to sit at a computer and answer the standard questions online: Have you ever been the victim of a crime? Are you married to a cop? Do you distrust cops? Have you ever been arrested and/or incarcerated?

And so on.

Gather this information from as many jurors as possible in advance of trials, and we won't have people waiting to answer these questions in crowded, stuffy courtrooms. Get the information online instead of in line.

Of course, there are still questions that can't be answered until the day a trial is set to begin ("Do you know the defendants in this case? Do you know the victim?") but my suggestion is still bound to save gobs of time, aggravation and money.

Maybe this isn't a problem in Talbot County or Harford County. But it's certainly a problem in the state's busiest circuit, Baltimore City. So let's start a pilot program here. Some smart geek can probably create the voir dire software.

There's one other idea: Why not dump the present system entirely and go with a professional jury pool?

Judges and magistrates are professionals. Prosecutors, public defenders, defense attorneys, clerks -- they went pro long ago. Why not professional jurors? They would take oaths and be officers of the courts, with full legal and ethical obligations to justice. Take the money we give citizen-jurors now, $15 per diem, and put it toward hiring full-time jurors to serve wherever and whenever needed.

I rest my case.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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