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SnakebyteXX
02-22-2005, 06:20 AM
If You Think You've Heard It All, Take a Left and Hit Traffic Court

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

They come with stories, small scripts meant to persuade. Under fluorescent lights and peeling signs, they face a sturdy group of straight-faced judges and they talk. The topic is traffic, and in New York City's traffic court, everyone still remembers the greatest story of them all.

It was in the mid-1980's. A man was accused of making an illegal turn. He confessed but insisted it was not his fault. He couldn't help it, he said. The poisonous airborne fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union arrived in New York and hit his elbow, which was sticking out his driver-side window, and this distraction caused him to turn his car accidentally.

The defense failed. So the man produced a doctor's note saying that he had eaten bad turkey.

Ah, the bad turkey defense. File it away with the others: The broken speedometer. The anxious mother-in-law. The emergency pit stop. The murderous gold thieves.

Anyone with flagging faith in the resourcefulness of New Yorkers need only pay a visit to any of the eight buildings in five boroughs that make up the traffic court system. Started in the 1970's to help unclog the city's criminal courts, traffic court is one of New York's best free shows. It is stand-up improv at its most creative with an occasional James Bond-like tale or even a violent plot, all in search of that one shimmering, often elusive dream, the dismissed ticket.

The show, which includes a total of 50 judges, plays weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and later on Thursdays. Each trial takes about 10 minutes, and judges hear from 50 to 100 cases a day. In all, the courts process about 1.3 million traffic tickets a year. Police officers who testify talk as fast as auctioneers.

The courtrooms have flags but look more like corporate offices than halls of justice. The judges, technically administrative law judges, do not wear robes but are addressed as "your honor." In South Brooklyn, traffic court is in a hangar-style building that used to house a taffy factory.

Whatever the setting, the stories take flight.

"If they tell you a story you've never heard before, they seem to think this makes it more believable," one judge said. "It doesn't."

Stories fall into several categories. Scatological defenses (think badly timed laxatives) are common, though rarely, if ever, successful. Then there are the more banal approaches, like hidden traffic signs and broken car parts.

"Speedometer is broken? That's a nonstarter," the judge said.

One driver swore that he was certain of his speed because his fiancée happened to be eye-level with the speedometer. "Obviously not brilliant," the judge said.

Like most traffic court judges, he would talk to a reporter only if his name was not published, because the state's Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency that runs the traffic court system, requires that any judge's comment be approved by a spokesman in Albany.

The court often mirrors the changes in New York's immigrant groups. A judge said he first came across the surname Singh in the late 1980's in the Manhattan traffic court that serves mostly cabdrivers. Sometime later, he said, he realized that the ethnicity of the cabbie population was changing when he called out the name Singh and three people stood up.

Lawyers and judges agree that certain ethnic groups favor certain defenses or explanations, depending on one's point of view. Russians, for example, often invoke their mothers-in-law. West Africans smile broadly, a public face that judges sometimes misinterpret as lack of respect.

Then there are the bargainers, drivers from countries in the Middle East and Russia, for example, who expect to be able to strike deals in court.

"Oh come on, you can do something, you're the judge," one judge recalled a driver telling him.

"Hello, I'd like to be here tomorrow," the judge replied.

Not every minute of traffic court is riveting. Most days, in fact, are ordinary. On a recent Thursday, a police officer, a truck driver from Ukraine, Andrei Martynchuk, and his translator stood in the Manhattan courtroom of Judge Eleanor Fink, who has been known to wear large dark glasses on the bench. (A nearby sign directed defendants to sit down with the words "Be eated.")

"So you're saying the light was yellow when you went through it," Judge Fink asked. For nearly a full minute Mr. Martynchuk spoke Russian in emphatic spurts to his translator, who looked up at the judge and replied, "I can say he's a very professional driver."

"He's my teacher and he taught me how to drive," the translator added.

Judge Fink delivered her verdict without emotion: "The violation has been established. I do not find a valid defense. You have the right to appeal within 30 days."

Drivers have been known to get violent. In the South Brooklyn court, in the mid-1990's, a driver once tried to grab the neck of a clerk, said Joseph Toussaint, who works there as a translator of Haitian Creole. The defendant was restrained but not before landing a punch. "They get excited," said Charles A. Willinger, a lawyer who works at the court. "They feel they're right. They're going to the Supreme Court with this."

Long lines to pay fines heighten the sense of injustice after a failed defense.

The pace is frantic. Mr. Willinger, who talks on his cellphone so much that he ties it to his pants with a cord to avoid losing it, works out of a three-part briefcase, tickets clipped together in small piles on top.

"It's like stopwatch justice, trial by ordeal," said Jeffrey E. Levine, a lawyer who has worked in traffic court since the late 1980's, and once successfully defended a man who was stopped for speeding while racing a load of corneas from an eye bank to a Westchester hospital.

Mr. Levine, an affable Bronx native who said he once worked as a night manager of a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Buffalo, likes to tell about one of his cases that has become a traffic court legend. His client, who had been going 95 miles an hour at 2:30 a.m. on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, claimed that he was a gold dealer making a delivery to a Brooklyn jeweler and that he was being followed by a would-be thief. (A gold dealer, really? "He had an invoice!" Mr. Levine said.)

Not entirely trusting his client's version of things, though, Mr. Levine braced himself for the trial. But when the police officer presented his case, it turned out that a strange car had been following the defendant.

"I was shocked!" Mr. Levine said. "You could have knocked me over with a feather."

Still, the judge was not convinced. He found "the whole thing about the gold" to be incredible, Mr. Levine said. "He cross-examines like crazy."

But his client had an answer for every question, and the judge, unable to shake his story, acquitted him.

Mr. Levine is enthusiastic about the emblematic trappings of traffic. A stoplight bought on eBay hangs in his office window. The words "Stop Paying Tickets" flash over a red stop sign on his Web site.

He talks frankly about his profession. "Look, I'm a traffic lawyer," he said. "It's not glamorous. I will not leave an indelible mark on the legal profession." He is much prouder, he said, of his accomplishments as a father.

For many people, the ticket is their first brush with the law and they feel the police officer was wrong to single them out. Professionals like doctors and teachers often come to court arguing that their busy, productive lives should, on balance, outweigh their violation.

"But I had to double-park - I was late for class," was how one judge described such excuses. The attitude, he said, is, "Do you know who I am?"

Doctors, as an unspoken rule, are treated gently. As one judge put it, "You'd hate to be lying on an operating table, and have him say, 'Hey I remember you.' "

Bicycle riders, who occasionally come to court to fight tickets, almost always use the same defense: "I went through the red light really carefully."

Lawyers say that if a police officer is prepared, winning a case in traffic court is almost impossible. Statistics from the Department of Motor Vehicles show that in 2003, about 30 percent of people fighting tickets in the court were found not guilty.

Mr. Willinger, the Brooklyn lawyer, said his most unusual case involved a man who had fallen asleep in his car, which he had parked in a driving lane of the Belt Parkway. A police officer came upon the driver just before sunrise and gave him a ticket for obstructing traffic. Mr. Willinger won the case on a technicality.

Judges also have their moments of quiet pride. A judge in Brooklyn once heard a case involving a traffic agent whose car had been ticketed when he left it blocking traffic during a training exercise. The courtroom was full and people listened with interest. The judge, after weighing the case carefully, announced a guilty verdict.

The people in the room applauded.


link (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/22/nyregion/22traffic.html?hp&ex=1109134800&en=993978f6ecf4b16 9&ei=5094&partner=homepage)

PQQLK9
02-22-2005, 06:22 PM
That's Not the Ticket, Parkers Argue
Some Motorists Tagged in D.C. Find Contesting Worth the Hassle

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A42530-2005Feb21.html