Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Lesson in Civics; Principal vs Economics

A few weeks ago, I received a traffic ticket for disregarding a posted highway sign.  To be clear, I did ignore it following a bunch of other cars doing the same thing.  We all got tickets.   The whole situation felt like a bit of a scam -- the intersection was very confusing, the traffic patterns change daily due to construction, and the police officer was a dick -- literally.  And less than two hours after I got the ticket, the sign I violated was gone and the whole intersection was back to normal.

After a few days, I checked on the Ramsey County Court's site and found that this breach of the law would cost me $131.  Given I have a pretty clean driving record, I almost succumbed to the temptation to just drop a check in the mail.  But I wanted to tell someone, anyone what a scam I thought the whole thing was so I called the court.  I was given an appointment to appear before a hearing officer to plead my case.

I spent a few years in the criminal justice system decades ago and there was no such thing as a hearing officer.  You either paid the fine by mail or you appeared in court before a judge to plead your case.  Unless the policer officer was a complete idiot and/or the judge was having a bad day, that court appearance was usually a waste of your time.  As police officers, we were paid to be there, and I always enjoyed the theatre that was traffic court.

Visiting the Ramsey County Courthouse is actually pretty cool because it is an amazing art-deco building.  I got there early and wandered around and would have taken pictures if were not for the Ramsey County deputy who reminded me that photographs were not allowed for security reasons.  Apparently, al-Qaeda must have its eye on something here.  Waiting for my appointment was fascinating in and of itself given the cast of characters present hoping to walk away with driving records intact.  There were several well heeled women who were clearly uncomfortable sitting with the rest of us flotsam, several guys chatting loudly in Arabic, and an older guy who reeked of alcohol.

When my name was called, I didn't recognize it at first because the hearing officer was Hmong and the English language was not his strong suit.  As we entered his office, I presented my ticket and drivers license and after some work on his computer, he tells me I have three options.  I'm thinking -- wait, when does the hearing start? When do I get to plead my case?  It felt like talking to the finance guy at the car dealer when he's laying out the options he wants to sell you, the ones you really don't need.

In broken English, he presents my options:

A.  Take a court date in March of 2013.  I could plead my case before the judge but would have to pay     $100 in court costs regardless of the outcome.  The extended warranty option.
B.  Pay $231 and plead not guilty.  The ticket goes away, my license stays clear and nothing is reported to my insurance company.  When I inquire as to why this option costs $100 more, I am told that this pays for the Ramsey County Attorney waiving the charge. He tries to close the deal by saying "This best option. Keep record clear."  The paint sealant option.
C. Plead guilty and pay a reduced fee of $82 and have 1 point added to my license.  The mudflaps you don't want but are already installed option.

Now, I went down there because I felt the ticket was crap on principal alone.  But faced with the cold hard economic facts, I chose option C.  It costs me less out of pocket today and hopefully my insurance company will take pity on me.  My hearing officer says "Best option.  Very cheap".

He could make way more money as a car dealer finance guy.