Spinning the wheel: Traffic court a gamble, but most still pay the fine

Posted Sept. 03, 2012, at 2:37 p.m.

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Justice William Anderson listens to arguments in traffic court at the Penobscot Judicial Center on Thursday.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
Justice William Anderson listens to arguments in traffic court at the Penobscot Judicial Center on Thursday. Buy Photo
Defendants line up to talk with Assistant District Attorney Brendan Trainor before trials begin in traffic court at the Penobscot Judicial Center on Thursday.  Traffic court is held  in Bangor one to two days a month.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
Defendants line up to talk with Assistant District Attorney Brendan Trainor before trials begin in traffic court at the Penobscot Judicial Center on Thursday. Traffic court is held in Bangor one to two days a month. Buy Photo
Superior Court Justice William Anderson listens to Assistant District Attorney Brendan Trainor during a traffic court case. Seated in the foreground is Trooper Michael Johnston of the Maine State Police.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
Superior Court Justice William Anderson listens to Assistant District Attorney Brendan Trainor during a traffic court case. Seated in the foreground is Trooper Michael Johnston of the Maine State Police. Buy Photo

BANGOR, Maine — Like most of the other people jammed into the gallery of Courtroom 101 on Thursday morning, Derrick Slopey was apprehensive and nervous.

Slopey was one of 44 defendants who showed up to strike a deal, plead their case, or pay a fine as the second traffic court session of the month was held at the Penobscot Judicial Center.

The courtroom resembled “Let’s Make a Deal” for about an hour as defendants lined up during a break between the initial call of the docket and trial time to talk to police officers or Penobscot County Assistant District Attorney Brendan Trainor.

Superior Court Justice William Anderson, who presided Thursday, started things off by calling out each defendant’s name in alphabetical order. If they weren’t present, Anderson entered an automatic default guilty verdict. Those in attendance either agreed to pay a fine, requested a pre-trial meeting with Trainor, or asked for a trial. Forty-four of the 78 defendants who had their names called out in about 12 minutes agreed to pay their fines.

Anderson then recessed the court to give the remaining 34 defendants time to consult with Trainor and possibly make a deal.

One man who appeared to be at least in his 70s was overheard talking to an Old Town police officer and Trainor.

“Well, there should’ve been a warning,” the older man said.

“There’s no ‘should’ve been a warning.’ The police don’t have to issue a warning,” Trainor told the agitated man. “I’m not making myself clear to you. I am not dismissing this case.”

The man grudgingly agreed to pay a reduced fine, as did 28 others, leaving the final number of defendant trials at five.

Well, four, after one more decided to pay the fine and leave.

“Most people negotiate an agreement or elect not to contest it and the officers won’t have to stay around longer than a half hour or so,” said Maine State Trooper Michael Johnston.

Slopey threw everyone, including Anderson, a curve when he asked the judge if he could serve time in jail in lieu of paying a fine.

“I have not been asked that question in a long time,” Anderson said, shaking his head after a long pause. “But no, that doesn’t apply to civil cases.”

And then there are those who have learned a few tricks, like the man who — when asked by Anderson how he was pleading — asked first if “the cop who gave me the ticket” was there, obviously aware that if the officer wasn’t present, the judge would rule in favor of the defendant.

The officer was there.

One of the four defendants who wanted a trial was a 74-year-old man ticketed for making a left hand turn from the center lane on Broadway in Bangor in front of two stopped cars in the left lane while the left turn arrow on the traffic light was red.

The man, who said he earned a living by driving for 35 years, tried to convince Anderson that the intersection was poorly marked, the light was not red, the police officer who cited him was “hepped up and wound” that day, and “it’s a discrimination thing between he and I.”

Anderson wasn’t convinced, saying he thought “the chance that the defendant is wrong in this case is greater than the chance the officer is wrong,” and fined the man $137.01.

After his and two other trials were held, there were three losses for the defendants. That left Slopey, who didn’t even try to make a deal during the break.

“I could have, but I didn’t even talk to the assistant DA,” said the computer programmer from Orono, who was summoned for driving 81 miles per hour in a 65-mph zone on Interstate 95. “I felt like I was prepared and I’d been thinking about it for two months.”

Johnston testified in detail how he came to pull Slopey over and was questioned by both Trainor and Slopey.

Slopey questioned all aspects of the trooper’s process, from how radar and laser technology works to the purpose of unmarked police vehicles. He even asked the question most people never get a chance to ask an officer:

“Do you operate under a quota system when it comes to traffic violations and tickets?” Slopey asked.

“No. Absolutely not,” Johnston answered.

The defendant took the stand and hung his defense on his belief that he was entitled to speed up to get ahead of and avoid a car he felt was driving strangely or erratically. That car turned out to be Johnson’s unmarked cruiser.

Anderson wasn’t inclined to agree, telling Slopey that wanting to get away from an erratic driver didn’t excuse him from speeding.

“I kind of suspected it was OK to speed for a reason, but he said absolutely it’s not OK to speed for a reason,” Slopey said.

Given that his trial cost him time and he still had to pay a standard $185.01 fine, Slopey was asked if he regretted not settling on a reduced fine in a pre-trial negotiation.

“No, 50 bucks isn’t a big deal,” Slopey said, referring to the amount he’d been able to negotiate down a previous fine. “I’ve done that in the past and I felt bad about it later that I didn’t contest it. And I learned a lot. I like Judge Anderson. He seems fair and he really does a good job explaining stuff. The cop’s a nice guy, too.”

Apparently the feeling was mutual, as Johnston and Trainor both remarked after the court session ended that not only was Slopey nice and respectful, he also was thorough and prepared.

“I was impressed,” said Johnston, who attends traffic court three or four times a month. “When a defendant gets up there and is honest, you can appreciate their standpoint more. I wouldn’t say I sympathize, but I empathize.”

Johnston doesn’t consider traffic court one of the more boring aspects of his job.

“In fact, I enjoy having trials. I look forward to them,” he said. “I think it’s a way to test your case and your preparation. It’s kind of a culmination of what you did out on the road. It’s a way to kind of sharpen my skills on the stand, and you learn things, as well.”

It was also an educational experience for Slopey, who opened a lot of eyes with his question about jail time credit.

“I really just said it to let other people know for sure whether it was an option,” explained Slopey, who said he read about the Legislature changing the rate of jail service time credit from $5 a day to $100 and didn’t realize it applied only to criminal cases. “If I didn’t have family and a job and other responsibilities, I might serve jail time just to protest this revenue stream they have with motor vehicle violations.”

And while he said he isn’t in a big hurry to come back, Slopey also said he was still glad he opted for a trial.

“The experience was definitely worth it,” he said. “I think I probably did as good as I’m capable of doing.”

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