Traffic Court & the Denial of Democracy

| August 17, 2014 | 0 Comments

George Mitrovich

Have you been to Traffic Court? Let me presume you haven’t. Great. Because you don’t want to go there. You will lose. The system is set up for you to lose. And, as systems go, this one is virtually fail safe.

Absent seeing an in-depth study of cases that come before Traffic Court, which I doubt exists, because it’s not a media thing, the odds of you winning are 99-1.

In conversations with attorneys, I have yet to find one who thinks my 99-1 odds are wrong. But let’s say I am slightly wrong, that the odds of a citizen winning in Traffic Court are 90-1 or even 80-1, does that change the inherent inequity? No.

The Traffic Court is the gift that keeps on giving to San Diego. Income derived by the city from fines and penalties in fiscal year 2014 was projected at $29.3 million. In a city with budget issues, $29.3 million, even if only 2.5 percent of the city’s total budget, is hardly insignificant.

And, there are additional benefits derived, specifically by police officers who are paid time and a half while in court – and to me police are always, “officers”, never “cops”, which I deem derogatory.

If police officers are to be paid time and a half, let them be paid time and a half while on active duty, not sitting around Traffic Court waiting for their case to be called; there is sufficient danger for police on the streets – but not likely in Traffic Court.

And no, this isn’t about me, but someone I know who carefully prepared their defense on a traffic violation; a defense with video evidence against the issuing officer, quickly dismissed by the hearing officer at Traffic Court.

The individual who dared to contest the citation was in court for nearly three hours before being heard and dismissed in minutes, guilty as charged. The city had its money. The police officer his time and a half. The citizen was out $332.

In this case there is cause to believe the police officer was not wholly forthcoming in his testimony; a polite way of saying he probably lied about where his black and white was when he decided a traffic violation occurred – a red light infraction on a right hand turn signal, mind you.

Thus I am weighing whether to file, as allowed by California Law, a public records request with the Traffic Court to investigate the ratio of citizens’ success in having their cases dismissed – and specifically to file for the records of the hearing commissioner in the case described, and other cases that commissioner has heard.

If I find I’m wrong, that the ratio isn’t 99-1, that it’s only 90-1 or 80-1, because fair is fair, and I’m nothing if not fair, I will duly report same – and apologize.

(There is a Web site devoted to helping citizens fight traffic courts. It claims to have helped more than 300,000 Californians alone. It’s worth checking out:

I will end this by disclosing that I was stopped on a Saturday morning in Kensington, not by one, but two black and white police cars. Yes, that is not a misprint, not one black and white, but two (did you know Kensington is a high crime area, I live there and didn’t.)

The officer approached. I rolled down my window. He asked, was I using my cell phone? “No.” “Do you mind if I look at your cell phone?” I wasn’t required to comply, but knowing I had not been talking and driving, I handed it over. He looked at it, seeing no record of a recent call, told me that obviously I had deleted the call. That was irritating

So I told him I had indeed been talking, that while driving I often use the time to practice my remarks for speeches or sermons. I then told him I was speaking that afternoon at the ordination into the Christian ministry of a dear and beloved friend –
Herb Johnson of the San Diego Rescue Mission – and was practicing what I hoped to say on that Holy occasion.

He clearly did not believe me. Annoyed, yes, I was annoyed, it’s an Irish/Serbian thing, I told him, “Officer, you have two choices. Either believe me or write the ticket.” He wrote the ticket.

That was his mistake.

When the case finally came to trial in Traffic Court on Clairemont Mesa Blvd. (you know that ugly, hideous building, with its hearing rooms in trailers), I was prepared.
I had my phone records from Verizon, proving I had not been talking on my cell phone.

The hearing commissioner heard the policeman state his reasons for the citation, and having reviewed my evidence, quickly said, “You have failed to prove your case. I find in the defendant’s behalf.”

Was I elated “justice was served?”

Hardly, I knew I had not been talking on my cell phone, but the police officer, too arrogant and too cynical by half, having stopped me, flashing red lights and all, felt he had to write the ticket.

Even now, three years later, thinking about it while composing these words, it still annoys, even though on the day of the hearing, I had been exceedingly polite to the young officer, because that’s me, but politeness is not what he deserved.

Yes, I won and the cop deservedly lost. But in Traffic Court that day, he was being paid time and a half. No one was paying me for my nearly four lost hours.

Democracy is a great thing. Maybe someday it will come to San Diego’s traffic court.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He may be reached at,

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