Putting traffic court lessons on your radar

March 29, 2010|By Michael Dresser Getting there

If you ever get a traffic ticket in Baltimore County and decide to go to trial, with a little luck you'll wind up in Judge Dorothy J. Wilson's courtroom in Catonsville.

You might not like the result, but at least you'll get a demonstration of how to be an effective traffic court judge.

Every once in a while, I find a reason to observe the workings of the state's District Courts, which handle most of the traffic cases in Maryland. I do this because I see this level of the judiciary as an essential line of defense against traffic mayhem. When it works, it makes us all a little safer. When it's run in an unprofessional, disorganized, capricious, lackadaisical or inconsistent manner, respect for the system erodes, and we're all in more danger.

So it was encouraging to sit in on Judge Wilson's court last Friday and see a job done right.

First, she's fast. There's no nonsense permitted in her courtroom, even from lawyers. In fact, there seemed to be little benefit to those who hired - or whose indulgent parents hired - counsel for a traffic case. The judge's ruling came out about the same, attorney or not. Save some money.

She also came across as unfailingly courteous - even to those making the most pathetic excuses for their bad behavior.

Is it worth it to be tried in her courtroom when you have a choice? It depends.

If you have had recent traffic convictions or a probation-before-judgment finding on your record, you might as well mail in your fine. The judge isn't into second chances - like some of her tender-hearted colleagues.

If you have a clean record - or at least no convictions in recent years - it will be well worth it to show up. But don't bother with an elaborate "guilty with an explanation." The result will be the same - and you'll save time and dignity - if you just ask for a PBJ. She'll grant it, after checking your record, but only if you pay about the same fine as you would if you mailed it in. The most common fine for garden-variety speeding was $160 with court costs, though those with especially leaden feet paid $290.

If you're thinking about pleading not guilty, think twice. Unless the police have screwed up the evidence, or the ticketing officer fails to show, your chances of acquittal are slight. Wilson believes in radar and isn't swayed by arguments that it's voodoo.

Quite a few defendants seemed to think they could play Beat the Radar and win. The typical plea was that the officer couldn't have possibly clocked them at the ticketed speed because they slowed down when they saw the police car. Each complainant soon learned that police officers have a Doppler radar unit in the rear of their cars and that once it pings, they're busted.

The only case in which I'd quibble with the outcome was that of a 17-year-old (whose name will be omitted because of his tender age) who came into court with his father. He was charged with speeding along Interstate 795 one night in January, doing 90 mph in a 60-mph zone.

Father and son stepped to the defendant's table. The judge politely but firmly directed Dad to take his seat among the spectators and let the teenager deal with the court like a grownup.

The young fellow pleaded not guilty and went into a song and dance about how the trooper couldn't have clocked him at that speed because he was 200 yards away from the police car when he slowed down. That's when he got an education from Maryland State Trooper First Class C. Smith on the impressive range of rear radar.

Wilson found the defendant guilty and handed down a $264.50 fine - expressing the hope that he ponied up the dough, rather than his parents. And where the judge spared the lectures with adults - most of whom were impervious anyway - she used the occasion as a teachable moment with the young driver.

"What would have happened if a deer stepped out in front of you?" Wilson asked. The teen admitted he didn't know.

Then the judge granted him a PBJ because he had no previous offenses. Too bad. The law ought to rule out PBJs in any case where the driver is going faster than 80. That caveat aside, the judge gave a clinic on how to run a traffic court.

By the way, if you're ever pinched by TFC Smith - he prefers not to use his first name but he's a wiry, mustached man who looks as if he were Will Smith's younger and better-looking brother - you might as well plead guilty. He's prepared. Last Friday he had a couple dozen cases and didn't lose one.

Judging by testimony, he can often be found by the Park and Ride at the eastern end of Interstate 70. He camps out right near the 25 mph sign with his rear radar toward the eastbound 40-mph zone inside the Beltway. He gets a lot of business there from folks who blow through the signs warning people to slow down. Be warned.

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