Backroom deals between police officers and traffic lawyers have recently caught the attention of the San Diego Superior Court. Traffic judges, such as El Cajon Judge Herbert Exarhos, are furious about the apparently widespread backroom deals. The real problem isn’t the deals, but a flawed trial process for traffic violations which limits the plea bargain options for defendants.
In 1979 the California Supreme Court ruled in People v, Carlucci that a prosecutor was not necessary for traffic cases. At the time, local governments argued providing a prosecutor was costly and time-consuming, especially because they could be working on bigger cases.
However, the ruling created a new set of problems with the traffic court system. Without a prosecutor, plea bargains became difficult to negotiate. Because there’s no prosecutor at traffic courts to negotiate a plea bargain with, defense lawyers are turning to the police officers who write traffic tickets.
In 1992 an Orange County court ruled in People v. Marcroft that police officers can only serve as witnesses, not prosecutors in a trial. Because police officers are not prosecutors, they are not allowed to negotiate plea bargains. Defense lawyers argue they only ask an officer if he’s willing to accept or object to a lesser charge if they find possible flaws, such as the officer’s speed radar malfunctioning.
These court decisions created a mess and undermined the traffic court system. The Constitution guarantees the defendant a fair trial, but it’s impossible to provide fair trials with the current system. A trial without prosecutors to negotiate plea bargains cannot be called fair.
It makes traffic courts less just than criminal courts, which have prosecutors and an easier plea bargains process. Unjust courts are not fair to defendants who go on trial. It’s similar to allowing a football team to play with 12 players and forcing the other team to play with only 11. It undermines our constitutional rights, which are supposed to be protected by the same courts making these lousy decisions. The court’s job is to uphold the rule of law, not overstepping the legislative process.
Reading between the lines, it seems a key factor behind the opposition to plea deals is money. Speeding, one of the most common traffic violations, requires the defendant to attend traffic school to remove the point from his or her driving record. Traffic schools require a non- refundable administrative fee, part of which goes to the county government, essentially creating a government revenue stream from traffic tickets.
Most of the backroom deals negotiated reduce speeding violations to a lesser offense of illegally coasting in neutral gear. The fines for the ticket are the same, but coasting in neutral gear does not put a point on a driver’s record. With no point on their records, drivers are not required to go to traffic school. Because points on a driving record increase insurance premiums, drivers have an incentive to get the lower violation, even if the fee is the same. As a result, the county government doesn’t receive money if the driver goes to traffic school.
Traffic courts need reform. Weneedtofindawaytomake plea bargains easier. Providing a prosecutor or someone to act as a prosecutor allows for plea bargains and give defendants a fair trial. Without reform, backroom deals will continue.
Stricter rulings by the court won’t stop lawyers from trying to contact officers who give traffic tickets. We don’t need the court to repeat the lackadaisical decisions other courts have made, which undermine our constitutional rights and create more legal messes and loopholes. When the court comes to a decision on these deals, I hope they realize how unfair traffic court trials really are. They should make a decision that’s flexible and reasonable and doesn’t just cater to judges and county governments who benefit from the money they receive from traffic school.