I was late for the Sunday Wheatgrass Ride a few weeks ago and had fallen in with Wily and Pilot. The downhill on PV Drive North gets you up to a solid 40 mph then hits a most inconveniently placed stop sign, right at the bottom of the descent where it veers left and up into the starting lot at Malaga Cove.
No self-respecting, early morning Sunday cyclist gives this stop sign so much as a nod, and we didn’t, either. The problem was that when we banged through the stopper at forty, out of the saddle, shoulders hunched, and heads slightly down as we slammed up the little rise, there was a police car waiting for us, and in the car was a trainee. And no cop lets a bike scofflaw go with a trainee in the passenger seat. It’s the perfect teaching moment, with the possibility of restraints and chokeholds thrown in for good measure.
There were other problems, too, like the fact that the cop leaped out of the car and immediately began purple-neck-veining at Wily. “Didn’t I pull you over here for the same damn thing last week?” he roared. We all got ticketed.
My last PV stop sign violation cost me about $150.00. I had declined to fight it and did the call-in fine-pay. This time, though, I figured I would go to the arraignment, enter a not guilty plea, set a trial date, and hope the cop didn’t show–especially since he had muttered to Wily that he was on vacation for the month of November. If he did show I’d at least be able to plead guilty and hope for a reduction.
Since I was riding my bike this morning and it was my own ticket I thought I would go to court as a regular citizen, so I put on shorts and t-shirt instead of a suit and went to the Torrance Courthouse. While waiting for the doors to open, a queue of about sixty people formed. Torrance, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Rancho PV, and PV Estates are predominantly white. So it was kind of amazing to see only three other white people here in the heart of Whitebreadsville.
I guess all the white drivers in the South Bay never run stop lights and such.
We pooled into the courtroom annex and a sheriff’s deputy gave us a speech before letting us into the courtroom. It was incredible.
He told us that his goal was to get us out of there in 30 to 45 minutes, and that 98% of us would do so. However, there were 2% who would be “problems” who “just didn’t get it” and they’d get to hang around for a couple of hours and waste the rest of their morning.
This was a great way to put us all under time pressure (Let’s get this done) and loser pressure (Don’t be a 2-percenter).
Then the deputy gave us an amazing sales pitch. He told us that his courtroom had a different judge every day and sometimes a different judge in the morning and one in the afternoon. This meant that if you got a bad judge you’d pay a big fine. However, today we were all really lucky because we had a good judge. This guy was one of the best, we were told. This judge would give us traffic school. He’d mark down our tickets. He’d give us six months to pay our fines. But if we pled not guilty, well, that was fine with the deputy, but you never know who the judge will be on the trial date.
Then he told us about the bad judge who levied an $8,000 fine on a truck driver who had rejected a $500 plea deal at his arraignment with one of the good judges.
You could see people cringe.
The whole time I was wondering where this fucking sheriff deputy’s bar card was. I was wondering who had appointed him city attorney. I was wondering if he knew it was illegal to give us legal advice–even as he lectured the younger defendants to think long and hard about how going to trial, losing, and not getting traffic school would up their parents’ insurance by hundreds of dollars a year.
The speech was relentless, smooth, practiced, and it was effective. By the time we entered the courtroom we were all so thankful we had a good judge. Then it got worse. The deputy handed out a clipboard and told everyone to write their name and sign. He never mentioned that it was permission to have our cases heard by a judge pro tem, who is not a real judge and is a lawyer hired at a cheap hourly rate to do the work that real judges can no longer do because of state budget cuts.
He never said that we had a right to have our case heard by a real judge and that we had a right to not have our case heard by the judge pro tem. So we baaaa-ed and signed our right away.
Now it got serious. The deputy and the courtroom clerk stood at the defendant table, checked us in, and made each one of us an offer. Not a judge. Not a city attorney. Not even a lawyer. Nope, the deputy glanced at the ticket, told you what the fine was going to be, and offered you a deal. “This is your out-the-door price, folks,” he said. “No hidden fees.”
When you accepted the amount, he wrote it down in bright red ink, put it in a stack and told you to sit down. Of course for most people — WHO FUCKING CARES — but there were people in court with multiple violations, people who really wanted to set their case for trial and get a fair hearing, and people for whom a guilty plea was going to have serious repercussions. And instead of having either an attorney or the judge explain it, we were getting the red-letter discount markdown offer and a high pressure sales pitch from a deputy sheriff.
And how could you say no? People who waffled were reminded what it would cost if they went to trial and lost and had to pay full freight, and how sideways things could go if they got a “bad” judge. By now we’d heard so much about good judges and bad judges that it seemed like the judiciary was a holding tank of either saints or reprobates.
A handful of people set their case for trial, but everyone else accepted the deputy’s plea deal. In my case, it was an amazing offer: My “out-the-door-price” was $25, and the deputy offered me the legal advice that it was a “no points” ticket. I wondered about that since I have many biker friends who’ve gotten “no points” tickets and wound up with points and big insurance rate hikes.
The only person with any backbone at all was the last defendant, a black man. “Hey, now,” he said to the deputy. “Before I sign anything, I got something you need to know.”
We all perked up. This guy was a two percenter.
“Yes?” said the deputy.
“This ticket is bullgarbage. I was sitting in my car minding my own business and this cop who didn’t have nothing to do came over and wrote me this bullgarbage ticket for running a stop sign. I was parked in the damn carwash parking lot.”
“Yes, yes,” the deputy nodded. “Take a seat over there and we’ll get to you after we’ve taken care of everyone else.”
TRANSLATION: GO SIT THE FUCK DOWN AND WAIT FOR TWO HOURS AS PUNISHMENT FOR NOT TAKING MY OFFER.
The judge came in and went through the docket quicker than an alcoholic goes through his first glass of vodka at breakfast. It was my turn. “How do you plead?”
“No contest, your honor, as long as there aren’t any points for this citation.”
“Well, I’m not sure about that. The ticket says traffic school isn’t an option, and that’s usually because it’s a no-points ticket.”
“Usually, your Honor? What about this ticket?”
“I don’t really know. How do you plead?”
So in addition to getting a non-lawyer deputy sheriff selling cut-rate discounts on bogus tickets to indigent defendants with a high pressure sales pitch, I got my case handled by a judge who knew no more about the ticket than I did.
“No contest, your Honor.”
“That’ll be $25, Mr. Davidson. Any questions?”
I had quite a lot of questions, but wasn’t about to make up the rest of the 2%. I had other fish to fry.