I got to court about a minute late today, the penalty for which was having to listen to every single other case in the room be heard before mine. While this initially struck me as quite a chore, I’m ultimately appreciative of the experience, because I learned some scintillating things. This was, by the way, because after 13 years of uncited driving in 3 licensed states, I was pulled over for a U-turn two weeks ago.
Anyway, the most important thing I learned is that you should always go to court to fight your ticket. Always. I think the system relies on people just paying up and assuming they don’t have options – just for showing up, you’re almost guaranteed to get a reduced penalty because you’ve shown you’re the type of person who is interested in your rights and fighting for them. It’s part of the larger core value in our society that exerting even the bare minimum of effort is rewarded and lauded. Just as the Selective Service (SS) is all bark and no bite on their hate-mail, so is traffic court’s effort to get you to just give up pretty toothless. Take the time and go in.
I learned this as I watched person after person get all manner of mayhem dismissed without points in exchange for them pleading to relatively minuscule charges. Even people who’d been cited three, four, or five times in the prior year were able to convince the prosecutor to bargain and knock down their violations to pointlessness. It actually made me angry to watch these serially bad drivers (the same ones who suicidally parade up and down Route 1) get off with minor fines when I had come so close to just paying the fine and eating 3 points on my license. Don’t do this. It doesn’t fulfill any concept of justice.
Additionally, I learned just how ingrained plea bargaining is as the core tenet of American jurisprudence. Anyone who actually understood American law would never run the case to get rid of plea bargains, because the alternative would be having every single case take way more time and energy – which is impressive, since they already take a good deal of both. At the same time, on a purely moral level, it’s a little strange that our state seems so driven to get everyone to admit they’re guilty and then is much less interested in the penalties. This really does remind me of the SS, whose goal was always to get compliance by threatening penalties, but to never actually impose those penalties (except for the Unconstitutional refusal to process the FAFSA, but that’s another long story). It reminds me of the Catholic Church. The penalties are minor and irrelevant; what counts is getting you to admit how bad you are/were.
I also learned that one should never hire a lawyer unless one is some seriously big-time trouble. The lawyer I’d actually called and considered hiring was in court with some of the early cases today and struck me as a thoroughly unimpressive and unpersuasive specimen. He spoke too quickly and somehow simultaneously mumbled and gave the overall impression of the weaker member of the novice team that you hit in first round at your average large APDA tournament. If I were going all the way to trial with this, which I considered, I would be horrified to have him got to bat for me. Besides, trial is probably not where it’ll end up, and the prosecutor’s just as happy to make a deal with you as with the lawyer.
Finally, I learned that pretty much everyone in New Jersey is a worse driver than I am. I could have guessed this, but it’s nice to get confirmation. I had the cleanest record of anyone in the courtroom, by a longshot, and probably the least serious charge in the room, with the possible exception of failure to show proof of insurance upon getting pulled over. The judge spent thirty seconds complimenting someone who’d been cited for speeding, gotten one ticket for speeding the year before, and had a clean record for five years before that. That this was my first citation in 13 years of driving seemed to blow both the prosecutor’s mind and the judge’s.
I didn’t get off scot-free, of course. I considered pushing for a trial, but the fact that it would have been in May instead of today deterred me. As convinced as I am that I could beat the ticket and the prosecutor (I had a three-pronged defense written up already under the assumption that the actual trial would be this morning), I am also convinced that it would be a pyrrhic victory given how much additional time, energy, and angst it would take. Given that the fee was nominal ($89) and that it doesn’t put points on my license or insurance, it seems the compromise was worth it. And that’s another way they get you – by making the wheels of justice turn exceedingly slowly, they ensure that most people will want to just jump off the train before they get to the station.
If only I could take the train everywhere from now on.