I got my first speeding ticket a couple of months ago for going 39 in a 30. Thing is, the posted speed limit is 35. I decided to go to traffic court to avoid getting a point on my license. I’d like to share my experience to help those who may also be going to traffic court in Maryland, specifically in Upper Marlboro. Another good article to check out (that gave me some idea of what to expect) is this one here, where the author went to traffic court in Annapolis. His tips are good, and I will add a few here.
Obviously this shouldn’t be taken as legal counsel, it’s just one guy’s experience.
When you get the ticket, you have to make a choice within thirty days:
1) pay it, which is equal to pleading guilty
2) request a trial, where you can plead ‘not guilty’ in front of a judge, though the officer who pulled you over may be there
3) request a hearing, which is pleading guilty with a chance to explain to the judge the mitigating circumstances which may reduce your penalty.
I requested a hearing. I figured that technically I was breaking the law, even if I was only going 4 mph over the speed limit (in MD, going even 1 mph over the posted limit can carry an $80 fine and a point, though it is rarely enforced that strictly). This was a dumb thing to do, and you’ll see why.
So I had to change my original court date because of a conflict. Long story short I was given the continuance, but for whatever reason my hearing didn’t make it onto the docket. Eventually the judge saw me, but because of this mistake, I was the absolute last person to have his case heard, and so I got to witness everything that happens in traffic court.
The door to the courtroom opens maybe 5 minutes before the assigned time, so there’s not much reason to get there early. About 50 of us were ushered into the courtroom, and it was quite a tight seating arrangement, but luckily I got a seat on the side where not many people sat.
Most people were dressed casually (I wasn’t), and it’s hard to say if appearance matters in these cases. I would say the worse your infraction is, the more put-together you might want to look. It’s really a matter of showing respect for the judge and the proceedings.
The judge did not appear for about 30 minutes. I am not sure what the delay was all about, but I heard some lawyers next to me comment that the judge might be waiting for some of the summoned officers to arrive. There were a couple of officers who were maybe 10 minutes late, so it might hold some credence.
The bailiff gave us the rules, which were pretty standard: no cell phones, no food, no gum.
The judge then entered and said “We’re going to try to get this done as quickly as we can.” And, boy, did it go fast. She explained to us that when our name is called, we stand, say “here,” then proceed to a table at the front of the courtroom, to her right. She told us that if our officer was not there, then we should plead not guilty. Then the proceedings began. A majority of them went like this:
Judge: John Doe?
Judge: Your officer is not here, how do you plead?
John: Not guilty, your honor.
Judge: The court finds you not guilty, have a good day.
And then she was on to the next case. Often the people didn’t have time to get to the front of the courtroom before they were found not guilty. One dummy even pled “guilty” after she told him the officer wasn’t there, and she basically told him to plead “not guilty”
For those people whose officers were there, it went a little slower, but not much:
Judge: Jane Doe?
Judge: Your officer is here, how do you plead?
Jane: Guilty, with an explanation.
Judge: It says you were speeding. What is your explanation?
Jane: I don’t think I was going as fast as the officer said.
Judge: Do you have any points on your license?
Judge: Officer, did you see any points when you pulled her over?
Officer: No, I did not.
Judge: I’ll reduce your fine and keep your record clean. Have a good day.
This exchange even happened with someone who was pulled over for going 95 in a 55. Their fine was reduced from $500 to less than half that. This judge basically wanted to hear that you were sorry and that would wouldn’t do it again. Even for people who were driving without a license, or without a seatbelt. She did not even need to see any kind of evidence for what the people were claiming (I had brought pictures showing the speed limit sign where I was pulled over — didn’t even use them).
This made me regret asking for a hearing, because it seemed as though officers only showed up for more serious cases. I would say 50-60% of the officers didn’t show up. Think about it, as an officer, are you going to waste your time for a guy who went 9 miles over the speed limit? Probably not. But you might if it was for a guy going 15 or 20 miles over.
I was literally the only person on that 50+ person docket who requested a hearing. If I had to do it again, I would have requested a trial — especially for such a small infraction.
After the traffic cases are parking ticket cases, which seemed to proceed in similar fashion to the traffic violations.
If your officer is there and you still plead “not guilty,” then you have to stay to the end for a trial. There was only one person in my group who wanted a trial, and he had been pulled over for unsafe lane changes and speeding on the Beltway. His defense was fairly weak, and the cop’s testimony seemed solid, and the judge found the offender guilty. But even so, she reduced his fine and didn’t give him any points, because he did not have any points on his license.
Finally the judge saw me, the last man in court. I explained the speed limit was 35, not 30. She asked how my driving record was, I said clean, and she reduced my fine from $80 to $10 plus court costs ($25), and didn’t give me any points. If I had requested a trial, I would say my chances were pretty high of my officer not showing and me not even owing the $10 (I’m not clear if people found not guilty need to pay court costs).
It was all done in about 45 minutes from the time the judge came in the room. I’d be prepared to be there for at least two hours. In Upper Marlboro, I think there is metered parking right near the courthouse, but I didn’t realize there was any there so I parked down by the pond (less than a half mile away), where spaces are plentiful.
Of course, this is just my experience. I was talking with someone who had a very different experience in Upper Marlboro, with a judge who was much tougher. I think overall that the judge appreciates that you took the time to protest the ticket, and wants to hear that you regret breaking the law and that you won’t do it again.
I will say that having to go through all this has made me much more aware of the speed limit and how fast I’m going. I guess this is the intended effect, and is good for us all. Safe driving, everyone, and good luck if you’re going to traffic court!