Representing yourself in traffic court? Tips for success from a pimp.

It seems that these pages get a lot of hits for people looking for tips on representing themselves in traffic court.  They have a ticket, don’t want to plead guilty, and surely don’t want to pay a guy like me to help them.  Who can blame them?  You headed to Kane County Branch court for that speeding ticket?  Bad registration at the McHenry County Courthouse?  You probably don’t need me… or any lawyer.

I’ve hinted at this before, but if your traffic record is good, the ticket you received is for a minor violation, and you are reasonably decent at explaining yourself, hiring an attorney for traffic court might just be one of the biggest wastes of money out there.   The law isn’t overly complicated.  And, quite frankly, the folks at the Kane County traffic court are generally decent people to deal with. If your record is bad or it’s not a minor violation, on the other hand…  I do offer free consultations.

Anyhow, I saw something in court today that had me reconsidering the fact that I’ve published that advice on a public web page.  I was waiting in line to start a trial in traffic court.  Before our case, the judge called the case of a lady who wanted a trial and was representing herself pro se.  Prosecutors hate having to deal with pro se trials.  I love watching them.  It’s fun seeing normal people push back on the system because, honestly, it doesn’t happen enough.

Anyhow, in a move you don’t see all the time in traffic court, the Judge asked the lady if she’d like to make an opening statement. He, very nicely, explained to her that she didn’t have to say anything but could use this opportunity to make a statement telling him what she thought the evidence would show and give him an idea of what to look out for.  My ears perked up and I started paying better attention.

This was her chance to get her version out before the cop even got to speak.  This was her chance to start persuading the judge before the prosecutor even called a witness.  This was her chance to show the judge that she was just a normal, likeable person taking on a trained government lawyer and paid, professional witness.  This was her time to explain to the judge why he was going to see David stand up and fight back against Goliath.

With that, this is what she said:

You are going to find me guilty because it’s my word against his.

What? Serious?  Damn!  I was almost sorry I started to pay attention.  What’s that saying about “you never get a second chance to make a first impression?”  Her opening statement told the judge that she’s already not anticipating victory.  Guess what happened in that one?  Yeah. She lost.  Nothing like setting the bar low from the outset.

You really don’t give yourself much of a chance when the first thing out of your mouth both tells the judge you’re not expecting to win and tells the judge he’s not going to believe you.   Oddly, many judges don’t have the automatic presumption that police are more believable than regular people.  Oddly, in traffic court people often get a much better shake than in, say, felony court.

So, I don’t take back what I said about most people not needing a lawyer a traffic court.  Instead, I add to it:

I once saw a television show that documented a Philosopher who went by the name of “Pimp Snooky.”  A small sliver of Pimp Snooky’s  philosophy was something you should really keep in mind when you’re in front of the judge.  It’s very simple- “Let your next move be your best move.”  That is what the lady today should have let shape the first words from her mouth.  She should have opened with the best thing she had to say.

While Pimp Snooky may be a Philosopher, he’s not a prophet. Sadly, the rest of Pimp Snooky’s philosophy seems to be really, really, really bad advice.  I can’t advocate following a single other thing the man has said.  That little bit, though, is gold.

Any time.  And by that, I mean ANY time a judge gives you a chance to speak freely about your case you need to put your best foot forward.  If you’re representing yourself in traffic court, don’t lead by admitting defeat.  Make Philsopher Snooky proud.  Let your next move be your best move.

I would think this should go without saying. I guess not.

Maybe it wasn’t a lucky guess…

Remember my hypothetical speeding trial?  Where I walked you though a few of the questions you might expect to hear from a seasoned traffic prosecutor?  I joked that I knew what the cops were going to say, because I had “the magic.

I brought that up in explaining the type of thing you could consider saying when the lawman pulled you over.  See, if he asks whether or not you know why he pulled you over and you tell him that you were “speeding” he will call that an “admission.”  I’m not a fan of admissions.  I just came across a police officer’s take on what to tell the cop who pulled you over.  Guess what he says?

When asked if you know why the police pulled you over, he says to just say “no.” Crazy how that works. Maybe criminal defense attorneys and the police aren’t so different?

That’s what I thought, anyway, until I got to the part about asking the officer to cut you some slack and let it slide.  I’d personally probably rather take the ticket than beg for a favor.  I’m not saying you have to be that stubborn.  I’m just saying that I am.

Top Three Signs You Need a Criminal Defense Attorney

In God we trust… all others are suspects.

How do you know you need to call some guy like me?  Sounds simple enough, right?  If you’ve ever asked the question (even quietly in your own head), that’s a good thing.  If you’re operating under the assumption that you’ll never need the advice of a criminal defense attorney, you might want to check that.

It’s not just the “accused” who could benefit from my advice.  I’ve also represented witnesses and even people that aren’t related to a crime in any way.  You’d think witnesses not involved in crimes would have nothing to worry about.  Some (certainly not all) of those trained police investigators have a knack for making anybody they talk to uncomfortable, though.  All I’m saying is that somebody once coined the phrase, “In God we trust… all others are considered suspects” and it wasn’t a guy like me.

I know that there’s a line of thinking that calling an attorney makes you look guilty.  I’ve talked a little bit before about how refusing to submit to whatever the police want will make you look guilty.  If you’re so caught up in not “looking” guilty to the police, then you can probably stop reading.  I’m more worried about looking guilty to a judge or jury.  The police can think what they want… they probably already do.

Easy enough for me to say, right?  I’m on the “giving” end of the advice, not on the “is it panic time… feels like panic time… what do I do now?” end of things.  I’ve actually been on both, though.  I guess you could paraphrase Cy Sperling’s famous “Hair Club for Men” commercials, and say I’m not only a criminal defense lawyer- I’m also a client.

Now you’re curious about my arrest, right?  Sadly (or not), I was never arrested. In January of 2007, however, I stepped out of the office for lunch.  I returned no more than 30 minutes later.  When I did, the office building was up in smoke and the fire department was busting through the windows.

Turns out that the building caught a case of the burndown while I was eating.  Obviously the police came to ask questions.  Nothing major- the building had been having serious electrical problems and there was an electrician there the day before.  The fire was in the basement where the electrical stuff was housed.

I told them where I was.  Then the fire marshal showed up.  He asked some questions.  I won’t bore you with the details, but in the hours that subsequently passed, more investigators showed up (including the ATF and their super-sniffing dog).  At this point, the questioning starts getting a little more intense, they’re not letting us see what they’re removing from the building, and they’re starting to ask a lot of the same stuff over and over.   I don’t have much patience for that- neither did the attorney I worked with at the time.  So we basically told them we were done with the questions.  Then I called a couple of criminal defense attorneys I know.

Did I burn down the building? Absolutely not. I was stuffing my face at Quiznos at the time.  Did I look guilty calling a lawyer?  I don’t care. I did care about knowing I had good, objective advice if I needed it.  I share this little anecdote only to demonstrate that there are a couple of sure-fire ways to tell if you should call a criminal defense lawyer.  Whether or not you are guilty doesn’t make a difference.

The following are not all of the signs- far from it, actually.  They are simply three of the largest “red flags”.  If you see any of them, you should be contacting an attorney right away.

Without further interruption here are three of the biggest signs that you need a criminal defense lawyer:

1. The police want to talk to you at the station.

You’ve been talking to the police (which, really, means you haven’t been reading up on things).  Now they’re asking you to come to the police station and talk to them there.  They’ll even give you a ride in the back of their squad car.  They might even tell you that you’re not under arrest.  Why not, right?  What could it hurt?

The reality is that they’re taking you there because it’s a much more controlled environment.  Police “interview” rooms and process are not only controlled, they’re the subject of countless hours and years of psychological research.  I can already tell you what that room is going to look like.  Watch police interrogations on youtube, and look at the lack of variety in the way the rooms are setup.  Think that’s an accident?

They want you in their controlled world because they’re not getting something out of you that they think they already should have– even if you are not the suspect.  They are suspicious of what you are saying.  You have an absolute right to have an attorney present for advice when they speak to you. More importantly, you have a right to that advice before you even walk in.  If they want to talk to you at the station, call an attorney.  Don’t think about it, just do it.

2. They are reading you your Miranda rights or telling you that you have a right to remain silent.

Despite how TV makes it look, the police do not have to read you the Miranda rights whenever they talk to you.  They only have to read them in certain circumstances and, generally, don’t want to read them to you if they don’t have to.  Logically, then, if they are reading it is because they think it is required by law.

When the man with the badge and the gun is telling you that you can call somebody to give you advice on how to deal with the man who has the badge and the gun, think it might make sense to take his suggestion?  I’m not going to get to technical, but it’s safe to assume that if the police feel the need to read you your rights, you should feel the need to call an attorney.  Immediately.  And, you need to tell them that as directly and unequivocally as possible.  Can it get any more clear cut then when the police are talking to you about criminal defense attorneys?  I’d like to say not but, in reality, the vast majority of people (guilty or otherwise) talk to the police.

Oddly enough, this seems to be one of the times people most fear what the police will “think” if they ask for a lawyer.  As simple as it looks on paper, this is probably the most ignored suggestion in all of criminal law.  All I can do is throw it out there.  Ignore it if you want.

3. Things get weird.

I can’t give you an absolute idea of what “weird” is other than to to tell you to trust your gut.  If something a police officer said does not sit well, or a question he asked seemed out of the ordinary, it’s best to talk it over with a lawyer.  This could happen at any stage of a police officer’s investigation, and in any investigation (big or small).  Stopped for speeding and he asks if you “have anything you shouldn’t” in the car?  That’s odd, isn’t it?

If you want to be a legal Jedi, you’re going to have to learn to use the force.

This is exactly what happened the day of our fire.  The tone of the investigation went from “this is electrical, we will be out of here soon” to “where was so-and-so” or “why isn’t the secretary here… is she usually here now?”  Despite my best Jedi mind-trick (“this isn’t the burned building you’re looking for”) my gut told me that the law enforcement mob out there that day was getting testy.  So, I called my guys.  When your gut tells you the same, don’t fight it. Embrace the force and call a lawyer.

Like I said above, these three signs are far from exhaustive.  If you see any of them, though, your thoughts shouldn’t be on whether to call a criminal defense lawyer but on which one to call. For that, I can’t help you.

Pics, or it didn’t happen.

Can anybody tell me why the police are a little bit edgy about cameras popping up everywhere?  That’s what the American Bar Association is saying… it’s a pretty interesting read.  This might come as a surprise to the 99.92343% who are not experienced, bitter, and cranky criminal defense attorneys, but it’s not us who oppose recording police-citizen interactions.  It’s them.

There’s a been a trend to mandate that “confessions” be recorded in certain circumstances.  Of course it’s been opposed.  Not by us, though. Why is that?  You would think having all of these “blatantly guilty” people on video would make our jobs harder, right?  Maybe… if that’s what the videos showed.

I was talking this over with a couple other lawyers last week.  I’m all for video recording everything that happens between the police and non-police.  And, by that I mean that I want the cameras rolling from the minute a suspect/witness/interviewee walks into a police station to the time he is released or taken to jail.  Seems simple enough.

Even when police video a confession, they don’t do it like you’d think.  They may have somebody in custody for hours.  They may be interrogating him for hours.  Once they know what the person is going to say, then they turn on the cameras.  What is there to hide?  Shouldn’t we be able to see what the government is doing?  There are no secrets in a police interrogation… are there?  There are no secrets at trial, why should there be any in an interrogation?

If traffic stops can be recorded in their entirety, there’s no reason interviews can’t… except that the police don’t want the cameras on.  That’s all I’m saying.

One of my “Three favorite things” in action.

The most popular post I’ve ever written on here is about how I’d deal with the police, and my three favorite things to read in a police report.  As an interesting followup, a friend of mine turned me on to this interesting video.  It’s less than two minutes long. Watch it when you can turn up the audio.

I’m not saying that every police/citizen encounter where a driver does this will end in a similar way. I am saying that it should end that way, though.

Now, compare it to the plight of poor Mr. Turner.