Since you asked,
It started back when I was 18 years old. I had observed that traffic court
had very little to do with giving a person a fair shot at winning the
argument, and far more to do with collecting revenue.
I had received a ticket that I thought was unjust, so I was looking for any
way possible to win. There was a book that had just been published called
Fight Your Ticket and Win and I studied the material very carefully, and I
saw that their might very well be some procedural things one could do to
make the process that had been streamlined to quickly pick ones pocket a
little more difficult.
I showed up in traffic court full of the notion that one, by asserting their
rights might just have a fighting chance. When my case was called, I stood
up and challenged the commissioners authority as the ticket I had signed
stated that I had promised to appear before a municipal court judge and
apparently he was not in fact a judge. He had a little patience with me and
said that his authority was granted in government code section such and such
and thinking the matter was settled asked me for my plea. I asked him if I
could defer this for a bit so I could verify that he in fact had the
authority and he permitted me to take a visit to the law library to verify
I went to the law library and the particular section he had cited was listed
as repealed. Giddy, I photo copied the book and returned to the court room.
He recalled my case and when he asked me if I was satisfied, I stood and
said as a matter of fact the particular government code section that that he
had claimed for his authority did in fact not exist, and I demanded to see a
real judge, and also I demanded that a verified complaint be filled.
Then something very unexpected happened. He told me to sit and called every
other case on the calendar. Only a few stragglers remained to see what was
going to happen. He declared a brief recess and when he returned to the
bench he stated that he had in fact been in error as to the specific section
and he then handed me copies of a different section that he claimed to grant
him the powers of a judge. It was a little after Noon by this point and
while I was reading the section he had given me he decided to twist my nose
a bit, and demanded that I plea. I started to argue the point that the
section he has cited was not quite what he had stated and... and he shut me
down and demanded the plea, when I said that he had not addressed my demand
for a verified complaint, he denied my motion for a complaint, entered a
plea of not guilty and set a court date for trial. He then ordered me to
post bail of $168 right now and when I stated that I only had about $1.85 in
my pocket he had me tossed in the klink.
Rather than teaching me a lesson where I meekly surrendered I was outraged.
While no one else had been required to post bail, I was being made an
example of and as I was marched out of the courtroom in hand cuffs I was
thinking about seeking a writ of habeas corpus, and I was going to fix his
wagon etc. All of my confidence shattered when the jail house door slammed
shut I spent three days in the clink with a fogged brain and decided to
call my friend back and bail out.
As I once again was in clear air and had retained my thinking capacity I
spent every available hour in the law library. On weekends I would cruise
the thrift stores looking for discarded law texts to read.
The day came for trial and I walked into the commissioners court room and
was ready to cite from the Magna Charta and the Constitution and regale this
man with cogent arguments etc. When my case was called the cop took his
seat and I took the other side of the courtroom. I had with me a dozen or
so of my thrift store finds and a brief case full of Xeroxed pages.
In retrospect I was doing it all wrong and was hopelessly unprepared, but at
that moment I had no clue. I started in and was immediately asked to stop.
The commissioner then did something strange. He said "Mr.Shoaf, if I recall
correctly, you would like to appear before a Judge in this matter and have a
complaint filed correct?" "Yes." Very well. Officer it appears as if your
testimony will not be required, this matter is reset for arraignment in
department 3, and the District Attorney shall be directed to file a
complaint. This court stands in recess"... "Wait a second here" the
Constitution of the United states prohibits excessive bail--" "Bail is
exonerated". My jaw dropped and the commissioner left the court room. The
cop shook my hand and wished me luck.
I eventually won when the cop was not summoned for trial. It took me a
while to figure out what was really going on. I was correct that a
commissioner is not the same thing as a judge, but the way it works is that
you must make an objection or by not objecting, you have given your consent
for the commissioner to have full authority of a judge. The commissioner
realized that he had screwed up and was backpedaling to avoid problems.
When I was in the municipal court things were run very differently. There
most of the cases were a whole lot more serious than traffic charges and
most of them were accused of things like drunk driving theft or were accused
of some felony charge. The deputy DA was very busy with 40 or 50 real
criminal cases and there were lawyers going through there motions and making
plea bargains and the like and I realized that this was a really good
position to be in as I was the case that would most likely slip through the
cracks so that the serious stuff could be handled.
I continued to be a regular patron at the law library and was slowly
learning a whole lot about the legal process and more importantly why those
process are in place. The whole traffic court system is a alternative
method to find as many people guilty as possible as fast as possible but
make it look like something is actually happening that upholds your rights.
It (the traffic ticket court scheme) is legally correct but it is based
entirely on a series of consensual acts that waive your rights without you
even knowing that is happening. It is staffed by clerks that do not
understand much more than the mechanics of creating files and collecting
revenue. It is clear from the start of things that the path of least
resistance is given to those that just want to pay and the illusion is that
it is more trouble to fight than it is to pay a nominal sum.
But to those that understand this, they can withhold their consent. They
can opt for a hearing before an impartial magistrate to determine if there
is probable cause, to file motions to gain discovery to see if the I's have
been dotted, and the Tee's have been crossed. The entire legal system
evolving from Runnymede in 1215 where a king was held at sword point and
urged to grant liberties to the common man is in place today.
The system is designed to cast off cases that are not worth the time to
pursue. Each side has rules to follow and can loose if they do not follow
the rules. Miss a deadline to submit a paper and you loose. If either side
fails to give the proper notice to the other side this can be fatal. Both
sides to every controversy are dragged through this mess to separate out
those real substantive cases from those that can be settled amicably.
Once I realized how the system is supposed to work and why it is supposed to
work that way, I look for chinks in their armor and make my counter attack
at the week points. This causes them to spend time and money to deal with
me and then they realize that it is cheaper to give up on me than it is to
jump through all of the flaming hoops. It is expensive for me to do it this
way, I have to take time off from work, be sure to meet the dead lines,
learn the language of the court and be sure to used recycled paper with a 1
inch margin on the left and a half an inch margin on the right with the
lines numbered and all of that nonsense. So when I get a ticket it might
very well cost me more to defend than the fine would be if I chose to just
write a check, but I do not suffer the collateral damage of increased
insurance costs, and retain my eligibility for certain employment
I have been refining the process over time. For instance one time I got a
ticket for speeding on the Golden Gate Bridge. The speed limit on the
bridge is 45MPH and I was nailed at 3:00 AM for doing 55. The north tower
is the county line and I was nabbed going south and pulled over just past
the toll plaza on the San Francisco side. The friendly CHP officer was
based out of Marin County so he found it more convenient to file the ticket
in the Marin County court house. In getting ready for defending I notice
this and was ready to make the other side start jumping through the hoops.
In this case they made it easy for me. I showed up at the court house and
offered to appear before a judge. The clerk being a civil servant and used
to their routine tried to assign me to a traffic commissioner.
"I'm sorry, perhaps you misunderstood, Miss, I am offering to see a Judge
not a commissioner, perhaps I was unclear". Trying to be helpful, she tried
to convince me that I should go see the commissioner, but I held my ground.
When she did not accept my offer, this was an opportunity to assert a right
so I took it. I left the court house and then gave notice to the other side
that I was thwarted in my attempt to meet my obligation that I was under
when I signed my ticket. At this point the other side could have chosen to
appeal to the fairness of the rules and re-obligate me by filing a verified
complaint before a judge and if they were successful in this the Judge would
have issued a warrant for my arrest and I would have to show up again. They
however couldn't bother and probably did not even care.
Being aware however of the existence of the system that is in place to
punish those scofflaws that fail to appear I would check periodically my
driving record with the DMV. sure enough the computerized system had sent a
notice to the DMV that I was in default and was subject to sanctions for my
failure to appear.
I am ready for this and send the court my letter complaining of the error.
Now the clerk was faced with a piece of paper that they did not know what to
do with so they asked the commissioner. He evidently pointed out to them
that the notice to DMV was technically inappropriate and it was recalled.
Result was a non suit. The other side never did attempt to recover from the
error so I win, or perhaps more aptly I didn't lose.
This does not however always work out. Several years later I was back in
the same court house that had that commissioner that had me tossed in the
klink. My strategy with this one was not only to win the ticket, but also I
was hoping that I would be charged with a willful failure to appear so that
I might subpoena the traffic commissioner into court to explain why he had
tossed me in the klink. I could taste the sweet revenge.
It took about three years but I was finally arrested for driving with a
suspended license. While I was in the process of defending against this
charge, I was subsequently charged with this three more times. I was
eventually tried and convicted and sentenced to 6 months in jail and over a
thousand dollars in fines and fees. I lost because I was now in court with
a seasoned prosecuting attorney that was able to thwart my defense and
obtained a ruling from the court that the testimony of the commissioner and
of the court clerks was irrelevant.
I was fortunate however as when I had subpoenaed the records to use in my
defense the court clerk then had placed the three year old traffic ticket on
the courts calendar and the Judge had made a decision to dismiss them in the
interest of Justice. I was also fortunate that the Judge permitted me to
remain free until such time as my appeal was heard.
The dismissal of the unresolved ticket resulted in the DMV setting aside the
suspension of my license.
Now I was really in over my head and was scrambling to jump through the
hoops. The appeal process is set up a little different as the basic
assumption is the lower court did it's job correctly and that it was up to
me to prove otherwise. I realized I had a big problem as the only thing an
appeals court can by law consider is what is in the record and I had not
done a very good job of making a record of my position. I felt I was
The thought of sitting for six months in jail however was a strong
motivation for me to find a way so I found a curious procedure that allowed
me to bring to the courts attention the fact that my license suspension had
been set aside. While I in fact did not understand the nature of a writ of
error coram vobis, in denying this writ the appellate court made an off the
cuff remark that if a writ of habeas corpus was attempted they could
consider my request.
I chose to defer the habeas corpus to see if I was successful at my appeal.
The District Attorney apparently realized that my position had some merit as
when they filed a response to my appeal they conceded that it should be
When I was all spiffed up in a three piece blue pinstripe suit and a brand
new pair of wing tip shoes, my day in the appellate court came and the
presiding Judge spoke first. "Let me say to start with that the court
appreciates the candor of the District Attorney in this most unusual case
and we note that this is the first time that this has happened in the many
years I have been on the bench." I took this as an indication that I had
won. When the court asked me if I had anything to add, I was somewhat
flabbergasted and missed my opportunity to get a written opinion that I
could use later so I just said I was willing to submit the matter without
The ruling of the court was that the matter was reversed and ordered
I later got a ticket for rolling a stop sign and having a laminated drivers
license. The laminated drivers license charge would have been interesting
to fight as the law prohibits mutilation of the license and my license was
in fact in pristine condition and rather than being laminated, it was
instead hermetically sealed in a stout clear Mylar envelope. The county
that I was given the ticket had three court houses. The city that I was in
was usually served by the central branch but the law allows someone getting
a ticket to demand the county seat. The cop that gave me the ticket was
flustered a bit by my demand but changed the preprinted court address to the
county seat as was proper.
The procedure at the police station was to send all of the tickets to the
central court. I received a courtesy notice showing that the ticket was
filed in the central court but I had agreed to appear at the court house at
the county seat so that is wear I went on the date I had agreed to appear.
They however had no case to process and this was the home of the
commissioner that had tossed me in jail years ago. The court clerk also
remembered me as I was the firs person in history to have demanded that she
appear as a witness. When I showed up at her window after not laying eyes
on her for 5 year or so she commented "You! I remember you!"
Now the comedy of errors continues. The clerk is flustered as the case is
in the computer but the ticket is filed in the central branch. I stated
that my agreement was to appear at he county seat and that this was the time
and this was the place. No dice, she was going to act in the same manner as
she had always done. I went home and wrote letters, they were place in the
file and the computer again sent a notice to the DMV that I had "Failed to
Appear" and a hold was placed on my license.
A hold is not the same thing as a suspension, so my license remained listed
as valid. this would only cause mischief when I went to renew so I was not
worried too much, as that was some three year off.
A year later I got another ticket. This time I figured it would be best not
to push my luck, so I opted to go to traffic school. I paid the fee to the
court clerk (different county) and showed up to spend my 8 hours in traffic
school. The first thing that happened was the proctor said before they
started, they required three things. A copy of the court documents that
allowed you to attend traffic school, the tuition in cash, and they needed
to see everyone's drivers license. If any one has a problem please raise
I can't show him my drivers license as it was being held as evidence. the
proctor explained that I could not attend his class as the rules were
specific and they could lose their licensure to hold traffic school if they
were found not to be in compliance. I went on my way and pondered the
situation. Whose problem is it? I decided to make it the States problem.
Rather than submitting the traffic school diploma, I typed up a declaration
that I had offered to attend but was not allowed to attend because my
perfectly good drives license was being held as evidence in ca case that had
not been adjudicated yet because I was denied access to the court.
Since the clerk at this court was baffled she accepted the filing of the
notice, and the case was evidently dismissed because I never heard from them
It came time to renew my license and the issue of the hold cropped up. My
reaction was to do two things. First I offered to pay all of my fees due in
cash, take the test and then demand an administrative hearing to resolve the
denial of my renewal. My demand for a hearing was denied formally as the
DMV considered the hold to be a non discretionary matter and that I would
have to convince the court to remove the hold.
What I probably should have done at this point was to file suit to compel
the renewal of my license, but I instead opted to rely on defending rather
than learning a whole set of new procedures. I continued to drive and
eventually was arrested for driving without a license.
My life had evolved by this point, I owned my own business and had a great
deal of time sucked up with making a living and running the shop. I was
again before the jury and again subpoenaed the traffic commissioner and the
same court clerk that had rejected my offer year before. The same objection
was raised as to relevance of my evidence and I was again thwarted from
presenting to the jury my case. I lost and had a limited amount of time to
file an appeal. I still had my three piece blue pinstriped suit but it no
longer fit due to an expanding waist line.
Seeking to pull off the same hail marry routine as the last time, I walked
into the District Attorneys office and was rude and insulting to them and
taunted them that they were a bunch of cowards to not get a warrant for my
arrest on the failure to appear charge that had been left to wither on the
vine and that they were in fact a bunch of negligent and incompetent fools
that dared not face me in court. They took the bait and a week later I
received a notice from the police department that had originally cited me
with having the mutilated/laminated license that they were in possession of
a warrant for my arrest (Signed by the very commissioner that had tossed me
in the klink for challenging his authority.)
I then appeared at the police station and posted bail. I was cited to
appear in the central court for arraignment and there I was ready with my
objection that the case was to be heard at the county seat. The judge
agreed and the case was transferred.
Upon arrival I had filed a motion to dismiss for want of a speedy trial.
Motion granted. Now I take the abstract of the dismissal to the DMV and the
license suspension is set aside and I am again official.
Time is ticking however and I am back in the court that had found me guilty
on the suspended license charge. Unfortunately I drew a judge that was
different from the one that had presided over my trial and was familiar with
my dilemma. At the sentencing hearing I had asked her what was going to
happen if the DMV eventually set aside the suspension order and she
indicated that if that were to happen that they would be happy to give me my
fine back and undue the mess.
The Judge that I drew was not privy to the original Judge's position and
evidently felt that I was blowing smoke, so he denied my request for a new
trial and allowed the conviction to stand. I was now faced again with the
burden of appeal and had only two days to file my papers. I started the
process but fell into the trap of failing to file my opening brief or
perfect the record so my appeal was dismissed.
Being cocky I thought I could recover if only I could get back in front of
the trial Judge that had promised to make everything better. I did not pay
my fine of $185 and again several year went by before a defective tail lamp
caused a policeman to check and I was hauled in on a warrant.
I spent the weekend in jail and when I appeared in court I was given a offer
to get credit for the weekend in jail and pony up the poultry sum of $35 and
be readmitted to probation. again I screwed up and declined this offer so I
had to reappear and contest. My request to have the case heard before the
original trial judge was denied and at he hearing the judge would consider
only one thing could I prove that I had paid the $185 dollars I was ordered
to pay? "No but..." No then the court finds you guilty of the probation
violation ad you are to be remanded to jail for 30 days. Good by. I was
then hauled off in chains and spent my time playing cards and realizing
that I had outsmarted myself.
So that is the story of how I got my legal education. Hope you enjoyed the
Ah yes, a cogent observation. It always amazes me that the irony of things
is such that some attributes of ones personality are both positive or
negative depending on ones perspective.
You can at the same time be described as obstinate or stubborn yet for the
same reasons be viewed as consistent, stalwart or determined depending on
only the observers point of view.
Myself I like to view things positively, even though they might have some
pain associated with them. For instance I tend to think if you are not
having fun, you are not doing it right is a good rule of thumb if you are in
a casino or a court room.
Often the odds have little to do with the pleasure one derives from the game
and if you can afford the price of admission an occasional loss may prove
to be a valuable lesson. The key is to not only learn from your own
mistakes, but to learn from the mistakes of others.
The courtroom can be viewed as a game of skill or a game of chance. I like
to view it as more of a game of skill.
Glad you enjoyed the story.
"Roger Shoaf" wrote
Roger, that was the first post of that length I have ever read on the
Internet. Kudos! Well written.
Yet, somehow, you remind me of the frog in the heron's beak that won't take
his hands from around the heron's throat to be swallowed.
I have had some experiences in my life in my earlier years. I found out
that if you just show up and have some previously concocted plausible lie
for your behavior that you get fined, but usually less. The bigger or more
humorous the lie, the bigger the discount.
Now, life is almost boring. My daughter and SIL are POs, and I do volunteer
work with the PD in special capacities. They issued me vehicle
identification that basically means to a cop: Give this person a break
unless they are being a total idiot and deserve the ticket.
Don't know if it's that, or my driving has improved/slowed because I just
don't seem to encounter as many dramas as I used to.
I have heard that sentament loads of times, also common is why are you
wasting all that time just pay the damn fine and get it over with. It is
not worth the hassle etc. I will admit those are very valid reasons, but no
where near as much fun.
One definition of experience is that which you get when you don't get what
I found out
I have never found a reason to lie. As to getting a discount on the fine,
that is the smallest part of the penalty. The big part of the fine is the
increase in insurance primums.
I tell you that there are advantages to middle age, I suspect a lot of the
reasons I used to be stopped was due to the fact that I would drive $100
cars. (allergic to car payments) I think that in 30 years I may have had 3
or 4 speeding tickets. I don't think any of them were for more than 10 over
Not bad for someone that tends to average 30 to 100k miles each year.
I have met few really nasty cops, but most are just doing their job. The
one I mentioned that was in court when the commissioner had his change of
heart actually pulled me over several years later (something was hanging out
of my trunk and obscuring the license plate) and he remembered me from court
that day. He said that it was the most fun he had had in the courtroom in
15 years of being with the CHP.
I like and respect that imagery.
As Bill Cosby once said, "If the airplane is going to crash, I'll be out on
the wing flapping my arms" or "If elevator cable breaks, I'll jump at the
last minute and be stuck to the ceiling". I've probably mangled the
quotations but you get the jist of it.