Pirates And Highway Robbery In The West U Municipal Court

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ou can't blame a city for trying to make some ends at the expense of outsiders. What better way to do that than the killer combo of ticket-happy police and a headache-inducing municipal-court system that promises to get off your case if you fork over your fine?

That's what Malcolm Whittaker (no relation), a patent attorney who lives near the Medical Center, claims is going on in West University.

He was ticketed Nov. 1 on Buffalo Speedway for driving with an unsafe load. (This rebel without adequate vehicular storage space was flouting the law by driving with his Volvo's back hatch partially open; his kid's bicycle carriage prevented him from closing it completely.) When Whittaker decided to contest the citation, he learned West U municipal court requires three appearances to fight a traffic ticket: one for an arraignment, one for motions and a one for the actual trial.

"Most people, if you say to them that they have to go to court three times or they can pay $200, will just say, 'All right, I'll pay you the $200,'" Whittaker says. "Maybe I'm sufficiently hard-headed that I just said, 'I'm not going to do that.'"

After entering a plea of not guilty on his arraignment date, he received two calls in December -- one on Christmas Eve -- from a prosecutor who encouraged him to take a deferred-adjudication deal, complete a safe-driving class, pay his court costs and forget the whole thing. (By the way, that was one of two prosecutors working traffic court on the day of Whittaker's arraignment; that makes one prosecutor per square mile in West U, where the municipal court only handles Class C misdemeanors.)

"I said I hadn't done anything wrong. If I had done something wrong, I'd take the safe driving class, but I hadn't," Whittaker says. "Then I repeated to him, 'Could you please tell me what the statute numbers are?' That's when he called me back on Christmas Eve and said, 'Look, you need to take the deal. You're gonna end up paying us some money.'"

Still wanting to fight the case but unenthused (for some reason!) about two more appearances, Whittaker asked if he could offer a statement saying he wished to file no motions in lieu of his second appearance. The prosecutor said he could - if he wanted a warrant issued for his arrest for failure to appear.

Whittaker did file a pretrial motion after looking up the statutes he was being charged under and, with the help of the police chief, securing the video of his traffic stop, which resulted in his case getting dismissed in early January. But what continues to bother him was the way he believes the system is designed to shake down non-residents.

"It struck me as (piracy). 'All right, we're gonna come out on our boat, and we're gonna hijack you. And because we've got a gun and a badge, we'll set up a municipal court, and you're gonna pay us $200 to travel through West U,'" Whittaker says. "I have a colleague of mine who lives in West U...and he says he gets pulled over quite regularly. When he shows them his license and says he lives in West U, they say, 'Go on. Sorry.'"

West U city manager Michael Ross tells us neither the court nor the police department keeps records on resident status of motorists who are ticketed. In an e-mail to Hair Balls, Ross paraphrased municipal court clerk Gaby Perez as saying the three-appearance procedure is typical for a city the size of West U, characterizing the situation as "an isolated complaint by a recent defendant."

-- Blake Whitaker

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