After reading several accounts on the Internet, I’m sure you will note that the procedure in any given court is determined by the traditions and conventions in the area. So here is another one to add to the mix. This may or may not be the way it happens in the court near your home. But this is how it happens in San Mateo, CA.
Disclaimer: This is based on my experience. I am not trying to tell you how to prepare for traffic court, or how to behave once you are there. This is just my understanding of the procedure and proceedings in a traffic court. Hopefully, this will help you become familiar with the procedure. And best of all, when I lose all memory of this, this posting will remind me of what happened.
My court date was at 1:30PM. I arrived through the security check around 1:22 PM. It’s good to arrive a bit early I guess. There were about 30 people seated in the corridor just outside the court room. As soon as I entered the corridor, they all stood up. No, they did not mistake me for a judge or the Prime Minister. It was just coincidence. The bailiff had just announced that those who were here for the 1:30PM trial could come in. Had I come another minute earlier, I could have seen the order of the cases and which line number was mine. Since I got there when I did, I could not see that. It would have been an advantage to have that extra iota of information.
There were a few people in police uniform to usher us into the court room. It looked like they worked for the sheriff’s department. One of them was our bailiff. The others left after we were seated. There was one gentleman in addition to the bailiff who was in charge of the court proceedings before the judge arrived. Lets call him the court “manager.” When the door closed around 1:24 PM the court room had a bunch of defendants, a few police officers (who cited these defendants), and the two court officers – the manager and the bailiff.
Once we were all seated, the manager went through the list of that day’s cases and took attendance. He called out the name of each defendant and the corresponding citing officer. Those present said “here”. The others were marked absent. When he had gone through the complete list, he started at the top and went down the list again for those he had marked absent – just to make sure they were really absent.
By now it was 1:30PM. He asked us all to stand and raise our right hand. He then recited the standard oath that ends with “So help you God?” and we all said “I do.” He asked us all to sit. Then the bailiff step out the back door and came back momentarily. Then in a deep, calm voice he said “All rise.” It was just like they say in the movies. And why not, there is no better way to say it and exude gravitas.
The judge came in and sat. Then the bailiff said, “please be seated, the court is now in session.” Then the judge took over. To cut a long story short here is the sequence of events.
- First the judge asked if any officers want to dismiss their cases in the interests of justice. A few officers came forward and did that.
- Then the judge asked if anyone wanted to change their pleas and take advantage of a reduction in fine. A few people came forward and changed their pleas (from ‘not guilty’ I guess) to ‘no contest’. The judge immediately reduced their file to roughly half.
- After that the judge called the defendants and corresponding citing officer in order from the top.
- If the defendant was not there, but the policeman was there, the policeman read his statement and the judge marked the defendant guilty.
- If the defendant was present, but the citing officer was not present, then the case was dismissed and the defendant was free to leave.
- If both were present, then this is what happened
First the judge asked the officer to make his statement. All the officers followed this format. “On theof,, at approximately, I was parked near (or driving on 101 South or something). I noticed adoing. I followed theand turned on my lights and pulled him over. I asked for the driver’s license and registration. I identified the driver asfromdriver’s license. That person is seated to my left here. I explained towhy I pulled them over (and sometimes the nature of the violation). Then I went back to myand completed a citation. I then gave the citation to the driver and released them.”
Once the officer is done with his statement, it is the turn of the defendant to ask any questions to the officer. I found that none of the defendants did this. No one had any questions for the officer. I later found that this is a really stupid thing to do. According to the law you are allowed to pretend to be a lawyer and cross question the police officer on your behalf to shoot holes in his statement and later on in his testimony. To help in this questioning, it is very important to request a copy of the officer’s note from the police station before the trial. The officer is not allowed to present any evidence that is not in his notes. You have access to it if you ask for it from the police station well in advance. And best of all the police officer is treated as a witness and is not allowed to question or cross-question you – apparently he does not have the necessary qualification or training to practice law.
Anyway, all the defendants just did not question the police. The judge next asked the defendant if they wanted to make a statement. After the statement was made, if the judge needed any clarification she would ask questions of both the defendant and the officer.
Once the judge was done questioning, she would reach a conclusion. If the conclusion was that you were guilty then she would tell you that. The bail you posted would be forfeited. If she could not conclusively prove that you were guilty, she would say you will receive the verdict in the mail. Now I think she did this for two reasons.
- You can be guilty only if there is no doubt that you are guilty. If the defendant’s story is plausible, then the policeman’s statement – even if it is true – is not conclusive evidence.
- The judge does not want to make the officer look bad by saying the defendant is found not guilty (because like we all know ‘not guilty’ does not mean ‘innocent’. It just means we could not conclusively prove guilt beyond a shadow of doubt. All you need to be not guilty is a shadow of doubt.)
I don’t know what happens at the end. I think there will be no on left to “All rise”. So the three of them will just go “that was a good day!”