Bringing science and fairness to traffic court

Claude Paquin's picture

The week after The Citizen published my March 4 article about the practical difficulties involved in adjudicating traffic citations in our municipal courts, a Fayetteville citizen, Anne Copen, wrote about her own recent, and unhappy, experience in contesting a failure-to-stop citation.

In response, Fayetteville Police Chief Steven Heaton wrote a letter of his own, published on March 18. He explained that a videotape recording had been made which confirmed her violation. He then wrote the following:

“Maybe the judges have heard so many people come into their court and claim they have not done what they are accused of and found no evidence to support their assertion.”

Here is my response.

Ordinary motorists do not tape themselves driving and generally do not have the means to do so. Thus it is hard for them to produce evidence “to support their assertion” of innocence beyond their own sworn testimony (which, by the way, is evidence).

The law also says they are presumed innocent. It also says the proof against them must be beyond a reasonable doubt.

People can make mistakes. That’s true of police officers as much as it is for ordinary citizens. You only have to reflect on all the people who have had DNA tests prove they were innocent of rapes for which they had been convicted to realize the imperfections in our system. In those cases, both the police and the jurors made a mistake.

Since Chief Heaton says he has a videotape showing Mrs. Copen did not make the stop she was charged with not making, why not voluntarily show her the tape before the trial?

Why say about this 80-year-old widow that she should have asked? Is she at fault for not asking?

Had she been shown the tape, she probably would have graciously conceded her error, agreed to pay the fine, saved herself two trips to the courthouse, and also saved the judge and the officer the time needed for her trial. It would also have saved the judge the unpleasantness of having to make a difficult and unpopular decision.

Or else she might perhaps have said, “Hey, this is not even my car!”

Police officers know to say, “You have the right to remain silent, etc.” Why couldn’t they say, “I have a videotape and you have the right to look at it”?

I commend the Fayetteville Police Department for making tapes of violations. As my March 4 article stated, that is a good practice.

It would have been courteous and fair, and of course good police procedure, to let Mrs. Copen know early on that her non-stop had been caught on tape, that she had the right to review it before trial, and that she would be afforded a fair opportunity to see it. She should not have had to ask.

Beyond explaining she was 80 and a widow, Mrs. Copen, whom I do not personally know, stated in her letter she was on a very small fixed income and commented on the size of the fine, $150.

Chief Heaton stated her rolling stop infraction took place at the Beauregard Boulevard intersection with Apple Blossom Lane.

My first observation is that there is at least a modest expectation that our older citizens will be treated with a certain amount of graciousness and forbearance, and the situation of an older woman who no longer enjoys a supportive spouse at home should elicit at least a bit of sympathy.

I am familiar with the intersection identified by Chief Heaton. It is the scene of a four-way stop. It is an unnatural place to stop for those who drive on Beauregard, as at most times of the day there is zero traffic coming out of Apple Blossom Lane, a short feeder street. The stop on Beauregard was added just two or three years ago.

That spot seems like a good one to catch people. As there is so little traffic coming from Apple Blossom Lane, which itself needs to stop before entering the intersection, and there is good visibility for the people driving on Beauregard Boulevard, the risk of a collision is at most times very low, and a slow-moving rolling stop would for all practical purposes be safe and sufficient.

I know. The law is the law. And the law calls for a complete stop. Nonetheless, one must take with a grain of salt sanctimonious assertions that sticking old ladies with $150 tickets for just slowing down at a place like this is to make them safe. What that does is make them mad, and of course poorer!

When a citizen who normally respects the law and law enforcement walks out of a municipal courtroom feeling he has been abused by the system, we have eroded support for judges, lawyers, law enforcement officers, and the whole justice system.

In Mrs. Copen’s case, she was picked off at a place where the need for a stop sign, and certainly a complete stop, was at best minimal; she at least evidenced consciousness and due regard for the safety of others by slowing down appreciably; she was assessed a fine that appears disproportionate to her offense; and she was kept in the dark about the officer’s videotape and thus afforded no opportunity to review it and acknowledge her mistake before having to come into court (twice).

On top of that, the videotape was withheld from the judge, who apparently didn’t ask.

What the tape shows is what the tape shows, and the report of what it shows by the police chief would be inadmissible in court.

There is some unfairness to Mrs. Copen to trying her case in the newspaper on the basis of hearsay. The legally right time and right place to show the tape was at the trial, though the best practical time would have been to show it to her before any trial.

Is this much ado about nothing?

Personally I think it is too much ado, but not about nothing. Our legislature needs to rethink the whole system by which traffic laws are enforced. That was the main point of my initial article on traffic violations.

Interestingly enough, when the Georgia legislature enacted legislation on photo-recorded red light violations (code section 40-6-20(f)), it limited the fine to $70, called it a civil (and not a criminal) penalty, and declared that liability would be based upon preponderance of the evidence, and not the more stringent “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.

This law also provides that getting caught on camera going through a red light is neither a moving nor a criminal violation; no points are assessed, it is not part of the driver’s operating record, and it may not be used to influence insurance rates.

Running a red light is much more dangerous than making a rolling stop at a four-way stop next to a road with no traffic. Yet the rules are much less harsh when a camera does all the work of catching violators, and the violators are provided the pictures too.

As a society, we need to think all of that over.

If this is all about safety, going through a red light at a busy intersection is much more dangerous than rolling slowly through a stop sign at a four-way stop with no traffic in sight.

There is a serious disproportion between the $70 civil penalty for the red light violation and the $150 criminal penalty, plus the points, the record and the insurance consequences, for the stop violation.

So perhaps, as I was suggesting in my initial article, our legislature should take a good look at the whole situation to make it more rational.

When people who have never been in trouble with the law before appear in our traffic courts, they should be made to leave with the sense they have been treated fairly and courteously.

When they are made to feel the deck was stacked against them and they were gouged, that’s when their willingness to support our law enforcement withers, and that’s never good.

The late Wesley Asinoff told me, when he was municipal court judge in Peachtree City, that he had been replaced in the same job in Tyrone because sometimes he would give the accused the benefit of the doubt, as he thought the law required, and that was not appreciated by the town government. I also saw him berate Peachtree City police officers for drawing their gun on a dog in front of small children whose pet it was.

I don’t know if today’s judges have the nerve to talk to the police the way Judge Asinoff did, but it seems to me it would be fair to criticize the police for not volunteering to the accused that they have a videotape and that the accused may view it before going to court.

The consequences of not telling include the possibility of an injustice or causing extra work for the judge, the testifying police officer, and the loss of two days’ work for the accused.

For those unkind enough to worry about my own personal stake in these matters, I might just say that (1) I have a close relative in Georgia law enforcement, and (2) in over 50 years of driving I have never received a traffic citation (including parking).

This is not about me. And it is hardly about Mrs. Copen. It is about a system that needs to be improved.

The first step is to recognize that some honest citizens don’t seem to get a fair shake in our municipal courts.

The next step is to ask our legislators to try and do something about it, which is what my March 4 article clearly suggested.

[Claude Y. Paquin, a Fayette county resident, is a retired lawyer and actuary. Many of his Emory law school classmates have served or are still serving as judges, including the late Rowland Barnes, who was murdered in his courtroom in Fulton County.]

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S. Lindsey's picture
Submitted by S. Lindsey on Wed, 03/25/2009 - 7:08am.

Why do Police believe they can speed way over the speed limit while on NO calls and proceeding with no EMERGENCY equipment operating..
Georgia State Law requires that an Officer while responding to a call and while going over the posted speed limit MUST activate their units emergency equipment..
I am passed daily on County roads and State Hwys as well as the Interstate by Police driving in excess of the posted limit.. and I do not mean a couple of miles per hr... 10-20+ at times... I have seen them after passing me on Tara Blvd..above the posted limit pull into a restruant meet other Police and go inside for dinner.. We are not above the Law and they should not be also...

I will not lower my standards.. So UP YOURS.. Evil


TonyF's picture
Submitted by TonyF on Wed, 03/25/2009 - 7:06am.

the glovebox in my hotrod Ford looked like John Milner's from American Graffiti, full of trafic citations. RADAR was still new and the officers were more than happy to let me view the reading on their new toys (I was always guilty, I must say). Is this not done anymore? I don't know because I eventually grew-up and now I can only vagualy remember my last speeding ticket.

"Your, yore, you're all idiots." (T.Floyd)

hutch866's picture
Submitted by hutch866 on Wed, 03/25/2009 - 6:14am.

You do a disservice here, first this intersection is a four way stop, not a three way as you imply. I live in this area and have seen countless people breeze through this intersection barely slowing down, so I'm all for the police staking this out. I've lived here for 6 years and this stop sign has always been here, so yet again you lead people to believe the wrong thing, this intersection is also a bus stop for the school kids of all ages so the stop is called for, isn't new like you say, and you can spin it any way you like but the fact remains you seem to be wrong about this whole thing and should stay out of it until you get at least one fact straight.

I yam what I yam....Popeye

Submitted by mysteryman on Tue, 03/24/2009 - 10:05pm.

The hustlers roaming the Pavillion, The robbery team riding around in the 86 Lincoln looking for their next score.. I digress....PEACE

Submitted by idk_revisited on Tue, 03/24/2009 - 9:58pm.

...because he uses SO DANG MANY OF THEM.

I have an idea - FOLLOW THE LAW. If you break the law, PAY YOUR FINE.

If many of his fellow Emory Law School classmates are still judges and lawyers, and he's retired, does that mean he's just not good enough anymore.

Ya bore me, sir.

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