PTC cops stake out slow traffic light

Tue, 02/19/2008 - 4:00pm
By: Letters to the ...

Held hostage by a traffic light

My daughter was by herself, stuck at a traffic light at 2:30 in the morning. She waited for a long time — not one car passed by — the traffic light had to be broken.

So she looked both ways to make sure it was safe, and then made a left turn. Within seconds the flashing lights of a police cruiser were visible in her rear view mirror.

The next day she explained to me, “Daddy, how long was I supposed to wait? What if the light never changed? I would still be sitting there.”

I am in my second year of law school. I thought her actions were reasonable. After all, our legal system is one built on reason. I suggested that instead of sending in the $130 fine she fight the ticket. Little did I know how the system works.

My daughter, who is normally in college on Wednesday mornings, had to go to Peachtree City Court in order to plead not guilty. Then she was required to return a couple Wednesdays later for the actual trial. No wonder that, nationwide, 99 percent of all misdemeanor charges are settled by guilty/nolo pleas.

When we arrived in City Court, she was given a paper to sign, acknowledging that if she chose to go to trial and was found guilty that she could be sentenced to 12 months in jail and fined $1,000.

Whoa! In my Criminal Procedure class we had read about the state using implicit threats to coerce guilty pleas, but I thought this was over the top n a possible 12 months in prison for a traffic light at 2:30 in the morning.

We were lucky; there were only about a dozen cases, and hers was called approximately an hour and a half after our arrival at the courthouse. Because the state has to prove its case, the policeman testified first. He said that he and his lieutenant stopped at a vantage point just down the road from the light in question because it’s a very long light, and it’s common that people will wait at the light for a while and then go through it.

Oh, my gosh, I thought. So the cops know all about this, and purposely wait, like hunters over bait, to ticket people. Well, the judge certainly won’t stand for that. After all, ours is system of justice based on reason.

The policeman further testified that when he arrived at his vantage point that my daughter’s vehicle was already sitting at the light. Consequently, on cross-examination, it was determined that he had no idea how long she had been there. Furthermore, he could not recall any other vehicles driving through the intersection while he sat there.

My daughter testified to the facts, and then said that a traffic light serves two functions: safety and efficient flow of traffic. Given the totality of circumstances — it was very late at night, a young woman by herself sitting at a red light that refused to turn green, not even one car having passed through the light while she waited — her actions were reasonable.

The judge nodded his head. He said that this is very common — lots of cases before the court with almost identical facts. He said that he knew of another light that was even worse.

We’ve got it made, I thought. So the judge has seen this before. He knows how unjust this is. He’s on our side. There’s no way that he’ll stand for this. The cops are, after all, just doing their job, following orders. But the judge has a different purpose. He is supposed to administer justice. If a judge merely followed the statute book, we wouldn’t need a judge; his secretary could do the job.

Then I heard those words — seared into my memory — “This law has no exception.” I could not believe what I had just heard. I have been in law school for a year and a half. I have never heard a professor say that “this law has no exception.” I came back to reality just in time to hear the judge say, “Guilty. The fine is $130.”

I left the courtroom, seething. I got home and performed word searches of court opinions on Westlaw and LexisNexis. Apparently, no appellate judge in any court in the United States has EVER said, “This law has no exception.”

So what should you do if in the middle of the night you find yourself held hostage by a traffic light? It appears that your only legal option is to call the police dispatcher. Then she can radio the cop who is hiding down the street so that he can come direct traffic and rescue you.

Ivars Lacis

Peachtree City, Ga.

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TruthSleuth1958's picture
Submitted by TruthSleuth1958 on Mon, 02/25/2008 - 11:22am.

"So what should you do if in the middle of the night you find yourself held hostage by a traffic light?"

I would turn right.

Keep making excuses for your daughter .... she will keep running lights.

Now, what law school do you attend????

Sniffles05 The Plagiarizer in Chief
Sniffles05:Jeffc calls for your explanation and apology.

Submitted by Arf on Wed, 02/20/2008 - 12:02pm.

Several traffic lights in PTC need to be reviewed for use/wait time and reworked. I live off of MacDuff Parkway and after about 10 p.m., the wait trying to get onto 54 is incredible. One night I had to take a family member to the emergency room at about 1 a.m. We stopped at the light and waited, and waited, and fidgeted and worried, and waited. That wasn't the first time that light had almost caused me to have road rage (usually very patient and calm), but the most dramatic. Most of the people in Wilksmoor have experienced this light and complain to no avail. I've had friends who have skipped the light also, thinking it must be broken. You might have to wait when traffic on Hwy 54 is heavy, but the wait time during the day isn't near as long. Late at night when the traffic on 54 is very light (the ONLY time its light), and you wait, and wait, and wait. With this light, it is not unreasonable to finally decide that it must be broken. I have seen policemen sitting right up from the light. I guess I'm naive enough to think that they were counting and timing cars coming off of MacDuff so that the light could be updated. I guess they were sitting there waiting for their next victim. It's a shame that "everyone knows" that certain lights in the city are not timed right and nothing gets done, but it's a real travesty that our police department would waste time to take advantage of the situation and hand out tickets. They could better use that wait time by jumping out and directing traffic to help the people who are just trying to get through this town.

Submitted by Spyglass on Wed, 02/20/2008 - 2:04pm.

I wouldn't sit at a red light waiting on it to change if I was transporting someone to the Hospital.

Submitted by helpful lawyer on Wed, 02/20/2008 - 12:00pm.

It would have been helpful, in this case, to bring to the judge’s attention the case of Cargile v. State, 194 Ga. 20, 20 S.E.2d 416 (1942), wherein the Georgia Supreme Court stated that, “Absent intention or criminal negligence, there is no crime, notwithstanding the fact that a criminal act has been committed.”

This case, along with others, reflects what is stated in Georgia Code section 16-2-1 defining what is a crime. A crime is a violation of a statute of this state in which there is a joint operation of an act or omission to act and intention or criminal negligence.

Since the young lady had in fact stopped for the traffic light, waited a long time, made sure there was no other traffic around and no chance of accident, and had formed a reasonable belief that the traffic light was defective, she definitely had no intention to violate the law. Thus, there was no crime. Where there is no crime, no penalty may be imposed.

So what should she do next? How about filing a Motion for New Trial in which she politely explains to the judge she believes the judgment was in error because the court failed to consider Georgia code section 16-2-1 and the Cargile case?

It would not be unreasonable to think that paying a $130 fine is cheaper than hiring a lawyer, but with the fine can come higher insurance premiums, points against one’s license, and a blemish on one’s driving record. So perhaps it’s worth it. Then again some municipal court judges are hopeless, but a good advocate doesn’t give up on the first setback. Sometimes you can open the judges’ eyes to justice and it just takes patience and polite persistence.

Submitted by Jelly Bean on Mon, 02/25/2008 - 10:23am.

Please feel free to show me something else Helpful Lawyer, but my law classes have taught me that traffic offenses are strict liability issues and therefore no mens rea is required to prove guilt. You've pointed to criminal violations, of which running a red light is not. I agree that discretion should come into play and a warning more than likely would have been a better decision given the totality of the situation. With all this said, a violation of the law is a violation of the law. Also, keep in mind that the flow of political affiliations affects the way that judges rule. If you don't like it, do some lobbying or voting.

Submitted by helpful lawyer on Wed, 02/27/2008 - 12:47pm.

When Peachtree City lost the case of Davis v City of Peachtree City, 251 Ga. 219, in 1983, the Georgia Supreme Court held that vicarious strict liability violated due process under both the Georgia and the United States constitutions. In that case, Peachtree City was trying to penalize the owner of an establishment whose employee had, without the owner’s knowledge and in violation of all the owner’s rules and instructions, improperly sold alcohol.

This bit of history about Peachtree City shows at least that its municipal court judge is not always right. (Of course, I realize it’s not the same person today.)

The Supreme Court recognized there is a distinction between vicarious criminal liability and strict criminal liability. Strict criminal liability generally applies to the so-called rules of the road, but it only means that the State is not required to prove criminal intent.

Now, let us consider the following situations.

A police officer in pursuit of a traffic offender goes through a red light. The driver of a fire truck responding to a fire alarm goes through a red light. An ambulance driver responding to an emergency goes through a red light. An ordinary motorist is waived through traffic by a police officer while the light is red (as with a funeral procession). A driver stopped at a red light moves forward to allow an emergency vehicle to pass. A driver seeks to reach a hospital in a real life-or-death emergency and safely skips a red light.

Aren’t these all exceptions to the rule against going through red lights? If so, then the rule does admit of exceptions.

The fact the State is not required to prove criminal intent with strict criminal liability statutes does not mean that criminal intent is irrelevant. It is relevant and the defendant may show extenuating circumstances. That’s a matter of due process and a really good judge would understand that.

Is it wrong for an ordinary citizen to expect and want a really good judge at the municipal court level? Or should we expect to find good judges only at the Supreme Court level?

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