Alright, first things first. Don’t try to outrun the signals at a railroad crossing. It’s not worth it. And it doesn’t matter how late you are. Just submit to the fact that you live in the Midwest and sometimes that means getting stuck behind a slow-moving freight train. It happens.
The Gates of Hell
But if you’re reading this, you’ve probably already done it. You’ve made the mad dash toward the flashing lights and been stopped by a police officer. And, of course, I wouldn’t be writing this post if I hadn’t been stopped for that very thing. And just as I chronicled in Illinois Red Light Cameras: What you need to know, I’m going to tell you everything you want to know to help you more knowledgably deal with it, and, just maybe, get away Scott free, like I did.
The day I scooted across the tracks was a busy one. I had lots to do, so sitting behind a train for a few minutes was not in my game plan. But, dammit, when I saw the flashing lights by the Galewood Metra stop on Narragansett Ave. in Chicago, I was already committed, man. I was past that "point of no return"! I swear I was! Scout's Honor!
Well, regardless, in a quick, life-altering split second, I decided to proceed across the tracks. At some point while I was traversing the tracks, the gates began to come down, but I made it across without feeling I had done anything hazardous to myself or others. I did not drive around any already closed gates, nor would I ever think to do so (That’s where you get into this-person-deserved-to-be-obliterated-by-a-train territory – and good luck beating that rap).
Well, even before I crossed the tracks, I had seen the police car parked down the road, its lights flashing. For whatever reason, I had thought nothing of it, crossed the tracks on my terms, and started a sequence of events that would once again toss me, kicking and screaming, back into the traffic court system.
The officer, who was already giving a ticket to someone else for the very same thing, pointed at me to pull over.
“Do you know why I stopped you?” he asked.
This is a trick question. The best answer to this question, though it makes you look stupid, is always “No.” If you knew why you were being stopped, then you were knowingly breaking the law, right?
Well, I’m too dumb to follow my own advice, so I said, “Because I was crossing the railroad tracks?” At least I was smart enough to stop there and not implicate myself, but the officer completed my sentence for me.
“…while the signals were flashing and the gates were coming down?”
At this point, I realized it was time to keep silent. And I wasn’t about to argue that I had crossed a “point of no return” when the lights started flashing because, frankly, I wasn’t sure if I had, and furthermore, I don’t consider arguing with police officers to be a wise practice.
Instead, I politely accepted my punishment and went on my way. Remember this later. It’s relevant.
So that punishment? Pretty stiff:
- The officer confiscated my license as bond. (I later realized that I could have given my AAA Card as bond instead, but live and learn).
- I was told I could drive using the violation notice in place of my license. To retrieve it, I would need to appear in court on the date listed, which was in 6 weeks. This too is relevant. Make a note of it.
- The fine for my infraction would be $250 dollars, plus $194 in “court costs.” That’s right, not only do they fine you, they give you a mandatory court appearance and pile on the further humiliation of making you pay for the court’s time. Stay classy, Chicago.
I always like to be well-prepared for court, ready to do my best Sam Waterston Law and Order impression. To hone a solid presentation, I:
- Measured: How far away from the crossing the Officer was (500 feet), A FOOTBALL FIELD AND A HALF AWAY, YOUR HONOR!
- Noted: The horrible angle at which the officer stood (directly in front of the crossing down a flat, straight road – the worst angle possible, where it is very difficult to judge a car’s speed or its relationship to the railroad gates).
- Tried: To investigate the possibility of malfunctioning crossing signals:
After I was pulled over, I noticed in my rear view mirror the signals and barricades were acting like a pinball machine. When I asked the Officer what was going on, he told me there were no trains coming but that “Crews are working on the signals.” Nice. So instead of, maybe, doing a little traffic control safety in the face of a potentially dangerous situation, Metra Police are handing out tickets.
I called Metra to find out precisely what they were working on (I figured if the signals were malfunctioning or not timed correctly, I had an iron-clad defense), but when I told them why I was asking, they refused to divulge any further information, not wanting to contradict a police officer.
- Wrote: A couple of jokes that I felt might get me sympathy (or leniency). Hey, it never hurts to have a little prepared comedy in your back pocket. I never used them. Let’s just say the “tone” in the courtroom is not one of levity.
Court Day – 6 weeks later:
So it was off to the Daley Center for traffic court. Take out your keys, remove your belt, sink a pair of free throws, and go up the elevator. In a nutshell, here’s the process:
When the courtroom opens, you line up with the rest of the schmucks and show your ticket to a clerk to prove you’re present. Go sit down. Eventually, the officer(s) whose infractions are all being argued that day arrive. If you see your officer, then you have missed out on the glorious, iron-clad “Officer is not present” defense, which almost universally gets you off for any disputed petty charge.
When your name is called, you approach the bench and stand up in front of the judge, next to the officer and a lawyer (in this case, a woman), who represents the State. The officer never speaks directly to you. He generally whispers information to the State lawyer, who will handle most of the officer’s interaction with the judge.
The judge informs you of the charge against you and asks you whether you want to enter a plea of “Guilty” or “Not Guilty.”
Say Not Guilty. Always.
The judge will then say, in a kind of scary tone, “So you want to take this to trial?” The whole mention of a trial is meant to make you wet your pants and just pay the fine to get out of there. And many people did just that, terrified into paying for the comfort of being allowed to go home. But DO NOT panic. A trial just means that after they’ve filtered out all the poor suckers who have been intimidated into paying the fine, they’ll call you back up to say your peace. You don’t have to come back on a different day or put your hand on a bible or anything dramatic.
SIDEBAR, COUNSEL: One woman, a stick-thin, weathly-looking socialite who appeared uncomfortable being anywhere near a courthouse, brought herself a lawyer just to escort her in an expedited manner through the process, help her submit to the fine, and hasten her out to the cashier. I had a chance to speak to her briefly as we sat and waited. When I asked her why she had a lawyer, she said “I’ve never done this before, so I felt I should have representation.” Poor woman. Poor, stupid, helpless, rich woman. God only knows what she paid that lawyer to help her open up her pocketbook and pay the fine. Do not hire a lawyer for anything considered a “petty” traffic violation. You’re wasting your money.
Many people, like that socialite, can’t stomach the idea of being in a courtroom any longer than is necessary. And for many phases of the process, this is what the system is counting on.
But be patient. It could well be worth it to you.
Anyway, some defendants had a little gumption, and managed to plead to a lesser offense. If you find yourself at the end of your rope and have either pled guilty or are found guilty, you can try to “amend to a trespassing violation.” This means you have asked the court to lower the offense to “trespassing on railroad property.” It is a lower fine ($150 instead of $250) and shows on your record as a non-moving violation, much preferred to the movin’ kind. (By the way, if you’re wondering whether incidents that are “on your record” magically disappear over time, the lawyer informed the judge that one defendant had two moving violations…in 2001!). And remember, for a guilty plea or verdict, you’re still paying those court costs – another $194.
Other tricks to lowering your fees include doing community service. For a $250 fine, you can generally do 25 hours of community service instead. That’s 10 bucks an hour, which, given what a lot of people in this country make these days, isn’t all that bad.
The rules are simple: pick a non-profit organization of your choice (if you belong to a church, this is a super-easy decision), do the requisite number of community service hours, and return to the court on a specified date with proof that you have done the service (this “proof” consists of a letter on the organization’s letterhead noting your service).
Also note that there is flexibility in your “payment” options. For example, if you plead a $250 fine to $150, you could still eliminate the fine with community service, but the required hours might now be 12 instead of 25. Easy peasy. The only negatives are:
- You will have to wait to get your license back until you complete the community service, but you can still drive on the ticket, so no real harm there.
- You will need to return to court again to show proof of service (the judge generally gives about 2 months to get this done).
At this point, I’m thinking “I’m a goner.”
My name is called. I step up, the State Lawyer looks through her notes, and says, “Your honor, the officer does not recall this incident so we have an S.O.L.” (At least, I think she said S.O.L. I’m not sure, but since that stands for Shit Out of Luck, I’m rolling with it). The judge, having just endured a verbose argument from the jogger’s lawyer, says “Thank God,” rips my plastic-baggied license from the paper violation, hands me the license, and gives me a wave goodbye.
And that was it. Scott free. No fine. No court costs. Nothing on the record. License returned. All because the officer didn’t remember.
There you have it. So what did we learn, class?:
- Do not make yourself memorable during the infraction: Remember how I said I didn’t yell or scream or make a fuss? I just quietly took my ticket and drove away. If you find yourself in the same position for this type of infraction, do the same thing. Officers remember screaming. They remember dispute. They remember resistance. They would certainly remember: “I’m gonna kick your ass in court, pig!” Do not do any of this. Now, if your infraction is horrible and memorable, you may be out of luck no matter what, but for a marginal close call, it could make a world of difference if you act with respect and acceptance.
- Do not move up your court date: I seriously considered trying to move up my court date to get my license back sooner. But then I had a revelation…how many tickets is this officer going to write between now and then? I knew that if I had an argument to make, the more time that passed to cloud his memory, the better. Little did I know, it would cloud his memory to the point of zero recollection.
- Do not be intimidated by the courts process: The system is there as much for your protection as it is for the State. If you feel what you did was not egregious, then stand up for yourself. Don’t be terrified by terms like “trial”…which leads to…
- Say “Not Guilty”: There are several points in the process where you can win without saying anything beyond “Not Guilty.” Your officer may not show. Or he may not even remember. If none of that works, and you find yourself making a lame, terrible argument to a judge, you will still be in no worse shape than if you gave in immediately. Think about that – even if you lose, you are not going to pay more than you would have otherwise paid, and you still have the right to negotiate the punishment with the judge as you would have before. So why not press the issue? There is, literally, nothing to lose.