Traffic Court Confidential
So you've been stopped for speeding, and the cop notices your inspection sticker expired months ago and your left headlight is out. What now? The first thing you'll want to do is read the fine print squeezed onto the back of your ticket(s), which, believe it or not, does provide helpful information for navigating the municipal court system. But some useful facts won't be found in the fine print:
"If I could give one piece of advice, it would be keep your mouth shut. Don't admit anything, and do not make me remember you," says one HPD officer waiting to testify against a driver he did remember. Being unmemorable is a smart move if you request a trial by jury on your charges, which will be scheduled months -- maybe a year or more -- after you were stopped. If the ticketing officer can't remember you, it's likely your case will be dismissed.
Sometimes the lawyer pays
You won't need a lawyer if you decide to go ahead and pay your fine (which you can do with a credit card over the telephone, by check or money order through the mail or through Western Union). But there are good deals to be had if you decide to go to court: while most lawyers charge their clients what they would otherwise pay in fines, some will agree to pay the fine themselves if your case is not dismissed. David Sprecher is one who will not, claiming the practice could possibly violate the State Bar's ban on lawyers receiving contingency fees in criminal cases. Of course, a lawyer who doesn't pay fines also makes more money, and the general counsel for the State Bar says there's no rule preventing lawyers from paying their clients' traffic fines.
You don't need a lawyer to stall
If you decide to go to court to fight your ticket, your first appearance usually will be for an arraignment, where you will plead guilty or not guilty. The ticketing officer does not have to appear at your arraignment, so his failure to show up isn't grounds for dismissal at this stage. If you plead not guilty, you have the right to ask for a jury trial -- just as a lawyer would do for you. Generally, the more time that passes before your scheduled trial date, the better your chances of having your charges dropped, since the officer and witnesses are less likely to show up for the trial and more likely not to remember what happened if they do. But it's also true that a defendant who's forced to actually go through a jury trial without an attorney is likely to mount a poor defense -- and will probably look silly in the process.
Insurance hikes aren't
Many drivers who come to the municipal courthouse still think they will be assessed "points" on their licenses for speeding or running a red light. But that hasn't been true in Texas for more than a decade. Others believe their insurance premiums will automatically rise by 15 percent for a stop sign violation. Wrong again: you're automatically charged higher rates only if you have already been deemed a high-risk driver. Most drivers are not subject to rate increases for moving violations that do not involve an accident, according to Lee Jones of the Texas Department of Insurance. But there can be ramifications for some drivers: for instance, Jones warns that a driver with a previously spotless record can be moved out of a safe driver pool to an insurance category requiring higher premiums. The "points" system and automatic increases in rates do remain in effect for motorists involved in major accidents or those charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent driving, DWI or driving without a license or with a suspended license.
You can be defensive
A ticketed driver who opts to take defensive driving can apply by mail, rent a class on video at the grocery or video store, watch it from the comfort of home -- and forgo hiring a lawyer. But be aware that it can take a few weeks to get your course certificate from the state. "I always tell my clients to take (defensive driving) this coming weekend," says attorney Kameron Searle. "If they wait, they may not have the certificate back in the mail when they need to show it to the court." If you don't have the certificate within 120 days, you'll lose the defensive driving course option -- even if you took the course. Defensive driving courses taken to avoid convictions will still be noted on your driving record.
You can beat an FTA rap
If you don't pay the fine and don't come to court, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. At that point, it's a wise idea not to go out in public wearing anything you wouldn't want to be arrested in. The alternative is to hie yourself to the courthouse and pay a bond to insure your appearance in court on the new date for which your case is set. The charge on which the warrant is based is called a failure to appear (FTA). Usually, defendants who retain lawyers avoid paying the $125 fine for an FTA charge. "Others just do not know that the state cannot generally make these FTA cases," says Searle, a former municipal court prosecutor who now defends clients with traffic tickets. Often, defendants without lawyers admit to the judge that they missed their court date. Then the state does not have to prove its case, and the judge may either dismiss the charge or order the defendant to pay the $125 (which is often just a forfeiting of the bond he's already paid). Defendants with lawyers generally do not answer questions about their FTA charges, and the state usually dismisses the charges, since it can be very difficult to prove that a defendant was not in court. Prosecutors must rely on other witnesses to swear that a defendant -- who they probably don't recognize -- was not in court at the assigned time. They also have to prove that a defendant knew he had to be in court on the day in question.
Comfortable it's not...
Parking near the courthouse is hard to find, especially around the peak court hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Decent food is even more scarce (regulars will tell you that the best eats are to be had at a roadside wagon across Houston Avenue). The courthouse itself is a crowded and confusing place, even if you speak English, which many defendants don't. (If you need an interpreter, you have to ask for one -- although if you need an interpreter, it's unlikely you'll be reading this.) Family members and friends who come to court with you may be asked to wait in the hallways during the crowded night court dockets. And remember: no shorts!
-- Mary Flood
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.