No rest for the innocent

Atlanta traffic court can make it tough not to be guilty

Kris Sheets just wanted to go home. The ad exec and two friends were driving up West Peachtree to Sheets' place at the Windsor building when he tried to turn right on North Avenue. The entrance to his apartment's parking garage was right there. The problem was, it was NBA All-Star weekend.

The February game at Philips Arena turned the city into a straight-up traffic jam. Streets were being closed, with cops granting access only to residents who could prove they lived in the cordoned-off section.

Sheets claims he showed a cop his license, which lists the Windsor's address. But he says the cop wouldn't let him through and ordered him back into the bumper-grinding madness. Sheets says he edged into traffic and soon stopped to ask another cop if he could get into his building's garage. Minutes later, the first cop pulled up and wrote him a ticket for reckless driving and failure to obey an officer.

But the inanity of such a ticket pales in comparison to Sheets' attempts to argue his case in Atlanta City Court (which hears only traffic violations). After four court visits in six months, Sheets' case is still unresolved. And while his delay may be more extreme than most, it's indicative of the headache many traffic court defendants now suffer.

There's a new reality in Atlanta traffic court, one that applies to each of the approximately 700 people who pass through its four courtrooms daily: If you want to argue your case, be it as serious as a DUI or as insignificant as a broken taillight, you're going to have to make at least two visits.

For some ticketed drivers, that's one visit too many. The result: The new rule is seen as a ploy to dissuade defendants from arguing their case — and nudge them instead toward paying the fine.

"You're down there three hours and it just cost you $8 to park — if you can find a place to park, and then you've got to come back again," says an attorney who represents traffic court defendants and who asked not to be named. (I have to work with those people, he says by way of explanation.)

"And then if the officer has any excuse at all, they'll reset it again," the attorney says. "As a result, they force people to make economic decisions to plead guilty."

Starting a year ago, defendants who plead not guilty go to court the first time only to announce a plea; the cop doesn't have to be there, and the case is scheduled for trial at a later date. (Of course, defendants who go ahead and plead guilty or no contest are free to pay their fine and go.)

The officer is then supposed to appear at the defendant's actual trial date. But the case can be reset again — and sometimes again — if the officer still doesn't show.

It's no shocker that the rule is designed to benefit the accusers — namely, the cops or witnesses — rather than the accused.

"If they say they're not guilty, then we say fine," says traffic court Solicitor General Joseph Drolet. "We subpoena the officer and we expect we'll have a trial. We schedule it, then we inconvenience the witnesses, the officer and we do it."

The sacrifices in defendants' time are a small price to pay to help the city run more smoothly, according to Drolet. After all, the new rule keeps paid cops from sitting in court all day mostly doing nothing. And it allows both the police and the court more leeway should an officer get called to duty at the last minute.

"We try and make sure that [every case] gets a hearing," Drolet says, "rather than just saying we're going to dismiss all the work the police have done."

A visit to any one of the 10 or so traffic court sessions scheduled daily is best described in Judge Gary Jackson's bluntly drawn terms:

"It seems like it's crowded," Jackson barks to a packed courtroom on a July afternoon. "It's like this every day."

Jackson informs the 94 defendants that court may last more than three hours and that cell phones and gum are prohibited. A moment later he yells, "Guy in the second row in the blue shirt, please dispose of your chewing gum."

About an hour into the court session, a defendant who's come to court for the second time learns that the officer who wrote his ticket didn't make it to court that day. This defendant's fortunate. "I'm not going to make you come back a third time," Jackson tells him. "Case dismissed."

But later, a woman in a gray suit approaches the judge to plead not guilty for failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. "The court is taking these cases very seriously," Jackson says. He suggests she get a lawyer for the traffic ticket, which is punishable by a $100 fine. She declines. He sets her trial for Aug. 21.

Since the new rule was enacted, the number of people requesting jury trials "went down considerably," according to Drolet. That's good, he says, because it spares cops and witnesses from being "inconvenienced." He says the way it used to be, people would ask for trials and not really want them, gambling on the chance that the officer wouldn't show and their charge would be dropped.

Now, fewer trials equals "less waste for the court," Drolet says. "It means the system is operating with less game-playing."

Or, it could be that trials number fewer these days because defendants who might otherwise plead not guilty have decided it's easier to pay a fine than to pay another visit to court.

"It crossed my mind," says Wendy Hanson, who went to court July 11 to contest a $100 ticket for changing lanes without using a blinker. She wound up pleading not guilty and got a trial date of Aug. 12.

Hanson says she had to take a day off work and drive 60 miles to the July court date. And she'll have to do it again in August. Even if she's successful in arguing her case, she says her decision may ultimately cost her.

"I get paid around $100 a day," she says. "So for me to go to court and to miss a day of work is costing me $100."

Sheets, who was ticketed a block from where Hanson was pulled over, has now had his trial reset three times — once after the judge told him to get an attorney, once after the cop didn't show and once after the prosecution decided to tack on an additional charge of aggressive driving.

Sheets' latest trial date is Aug. 11. But he says a witness who has accompanied him to all four court dates so far will be out of town next time around.

In all likelihood, Sheets' case will be reset again.

"It's more than what I expected," Sheets says. "I didn't realize it was going to be this much of an issue."