I have had two experiences with traffic court, one many years ago in Cook County that was actually rather amusing and a big hoorah for the little guy.
Twenty-odd years ago, I was in a minor traffic accident. While sitting in a line of traffic on a Chicago street waiting for the car in front of me to complete a left-hand turn, a driver behind me did not feel the need for patience. He tried to scoot around me on the right-hand side, but because of a narrow intersection and a car parked as closeasthis to the intersection, he cut back into my lane too quickly.
In the process, he managed to hook his wheel well on my right front bumper, pulling it completely off my car, dragging my car several feet further into the intersection.
So, there I sat, in the middle of the street with my front bumper mostly on the ground in front of my car. I got my eight-month pregnant self out of the car, and luckily some pedestrians retrieved my bumper and pushed my car off to the side, across the intersection and to the corner, so as not to impede the always-patient Chicago drivers.
The other driver did stop, parking his car further up the street. At that point, I suggested we go around the corner to sit on a bus stop bench to exchange insurance information in the August heat, relieving my eight-months-pregnant back and swollen feet and ankles.
This task completed, I went back around the corner to see if someone could help me get my fender into the trunk and see if my car was drivable, only to find the neighborhood beat cop busily writing me a ticket for improper parking. My car was half on the curb and blocking the pedestrian right of way.
I stood there in stunned disbelief for a moment, while trying to figure out how this cop could not see that there had just been an accident in the middle of the intersection. I pointed out repeatedly my front bumper, now laying on the ground behind my car. I tried telling the cop the car was not parked, but had been pushed to that spot, out of the middle of the intersection, to let traffic through. His response was for me to “tell it to the judge.”
So, I did.
My court date was about three weeks after the incident, so I had yet to give birth. Family and friends described me at the time as a beach ball with sticks for arms and legs. I had carried all 60 pounds of my pregnancy weight between my hips and shoulders, which is quite a comical sight when you are only 5 foot 3. At the time, I had taken to wearing my father’s size 2X-large t-shirts, with the shoulder seams at my elbows, the fabric stretched taut across my belly, and the hem hitting mid-thigh. One could say I was obviously pregnant. Many people assumed I was carrying at least triplets.
Being my first experience in a courtroom, I walked, or rather waddled, to the back of the line that was waiting to see the clerk to register that I was there to respond to and fight this ticket. When I got in front of the clerk, the first thing she said was “When are you due?”
My answer of “in three days” put her in a panic. She told me to just step to the side, she would get me in front of the judge and out of there immediately. The panic on her face at the size of my belly was actually pretty funny, and if I hadn’t been so nervous, scared and just plain mad, I would have laughed.
The cop who had ticketed me was standing in front of the bench, and the judge was calling each of his cases one after another, and things were moving along pretty quickly. Most people were standing before the judge no more than a minute or two before being dispatched to the cashier to pay their fine and get their license back, and/or get scheduled for traffic school.
The clerk interrupted the judge’s flow, something he was obviously not accustomed to as evidenced by the look of annoyance on his face until he, too, noticed my girth.
I don’t know if it was the public defender or the prosecutor standing next to the bench who spoke to me, but she wanted me to understand it was a $20 ticket, but if I contested it and lost, it would be $200. I said I understood and wanted to contest it anyway.
In short order, I told the judge my car hadn’t been parked, but had been pushed to the curb due to the accident that had occurred in the middle of the intersection. When I got to the part of the story that was a recount of the cop's actions, noting his disinterest in ticketing the guy who admitted he tore the bumper off my car with his vehicle, I was interrupted by the attorney, who said to the cop, “and you wrote the ticket anyway?”
The judge had heard enough, gave the cop a baleful look and then turned to me and said, “dismissed. Go see the clerk to get your license cleared.” I was in and out of traffic court, in Cook County, in Chicago, in less than 30 minutes.
As I walked, or waddled, away, I overheard the judge say to the cop, “I do hope there aren’t any more like that.”
My recent experience in Will County could not be more different if it were in a foreign country, not just a different county in the same state.
As I blogged on Monday, my girlfriend had gotten herself into quite a mess, and I volunteered to be her chauffeur and moral support for her first foray into traffic court. As in Will County, the first order of business is to check in with the clerk.
The bailiff was obviously used to a packed house for traffic court, and even though the judge was already on the bench, he repeatedly addressed those seated, saying that if someone was there as a friend, family member or support for the person who needed to be there, please wait in the hall to make room fro those who had business with the court.
This is how I found myself hanging about the halls of justice in Will County. Perhaps I was actually in an alternate universe, one that parallels our own and looks and feels the same, but is in fact operating under completely different laws - of nature and jurisprudence.
Time seemed to drag on. It was obvious there were a lot of cases for the judge to hear, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on. There were a multitude of lawyers lining up in front of the judge, but very few defendants. There was also a notable lack of police officers in the courtroom. Most of them were cooling their heels in the hallways with the rest of us, though I didn’t think they were there as moral support for the defendants.
As time went by, I struck up a conversation with an officer from Frankfort who happened to be standing next to me. With him was another gentleman, whom I took to be a lawyer.
I asked them, “Is it always like this, so busy and chaotic?”
It is then that my education began, and I was given the first clue that perhaps Einstein's Theory of Relativity was being proved before my eyes. As our conversation progressed, a few more officers wandered over and joined our little group. New Lenox, Will County, Frankfort and a few others were represented before all was said and done.
What I learned shocked and sickened me, and proved beyond reasonable doubt that the system in Will County is broken.
It had been a 9 a.m. court call, and by 11:15 a.m. my girlfriend’s case had yet to be called. Nor had any of the cases involving the police officers. I was told this is usual and customary, simply the way things are done in Will County traffic court.
All the cases the judge was addressing were those in which there were attorneys present and involved.
I told the assembled police officers that my one and only previous experience in traffic court had been in Cook County. I explained that there, all the cases for which police officers were present were heard first, which seemed right and just. But simple, plain common sense works differently in parallel worlds, I guess. Quantum physics not being my strong suit, I could be wrong here.
One of the officers from Frankfort explained to me with a shrug of the shoulders that here in Will County, it is the lawyers who go first.
I asked him how it made sense to have police officers standing around in the halls of the courthouse for hours, rather than being out on the streets doing their jobs while the lawyers whose jobs require them to be in the courthouse anyway were being heard by the judge first.
It was at this point that I learned the man I took to be a lawyer was actually a prosecutor. He had the good manners to at least look abashed.
One police officer from New Lenox told me that for those on day shifts it was a little better. Cops like he and his partner, who worked the overnight shift that ended at 6 a.m., didn't have time to go home before the 9 a.m. court call. They were lucky to have a chance to grab something to eat after finishing paperwork at the station, then come to court and stand around for the morning.
They all agreed it was a given that if the person they had ticketed and/or arrested did, in fact, show up and did, in fact, have an attorney and were actually ready to go to trial, the morning was just an exercise in waiting to be told at what time and in which courtroom the trial would be that afternoon. If the defendant or a lawyer for the defendant didn’t show up, the judge would set another date and they would get to do it all again another day.
That police officer told me he counted it a good day if he got out of there by 3 p.m. so he would at least have a chance to grab something to eat, shower, change into a fresh uniform and report for duty at 6 p.m. for his next 12-hour shift.
He further told me that it is not unusual to have a court appearance two days in a row, meaning he would work a 12-hour shift, spend the entire day hanging around the courthouse, report for his next 12-hour shift and get to spend the next full day at the courthouse again.
He said the only saving grace was that if he were scheduled for the third night’s 12-hour shift, his command understood and allowed him a sick day. That is, when they weren’t short-handed due to budget cuts, vacations and mandatory furlough days, thereby prohibiting him from taking the night off.
I meant no offense when I said it, but the words were out of my mouth before my brain could stop them when I said, “And how effective and alert are you going to be on the job when you basically haven’t slept for 72 hours or more?” I quickly added how appalled I was that Will County was more concerned with the lawyer’s time than they were with the police’s.
At that point, I introduced myself and promised the assembled officers that they would see this whole experience in print. At the wide-eyed looks of panic, I assured them I would not use their names and there would be no way of identifying them individually. I did say I would name their departments in the probably vain hope that someone, somewhere, would see the ridiculousness of this and address the situation.
The next day, just to check my facts, I called the courthouse. I spoke to one of the clerks to find out who is responsible for the order in which cases are called. I was told it is up to the individual judge but the common practice is for judges to hear the cases in which the attorneys were present first in consideration of the fact that attorneys may have several cases in front of several judges on the same day, with the same court call time. The concern is to keep things moving in the various courtrooms.
In other words, the cops I spoke with told it true. Will County judges seem to value lawyers' time more highly than that of the police.
A little further checking informed me that according to every source I could find, at least in Illinois, judges do have this discretion, though policy as it is set by the chief judge varies by county.
Frankly, I am outraged. I understand that judges were lawyers first and therefore have a natural affinity for and understanding of lawyers' schedules and time. I also understand that judges, and therefore cases and defendants, often must wait for an attorney to finish pleading a motion or attending to a hearing in another courtroom; to be fair, no one case or defendant is more deserving than another. In our system, everyone is to be afforded equal rights and access to a speedy trial.
But this is where the system goes off the rails.
The judges’ and lawyers’ job is to be in the courthouse. A police officer’s job is to be on the streets. Making the police stand around and wait in line behind the lawyers is just wrong.