Monday, May 6, 2013

Illinois Railroad Crossing Infractions: What You Need to Know

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.

Court Prep:

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).
So as I waited to hear my name called, I watched a guy (and his lawyer) engaged in a “trial.” The lawyer tried to cite specific Illinois law to defend a violation in which he was jogging across a restricted area of railroad property. The officer had photos of the incident (PHOTOS!) and despite a long-winded diatribe by the jogger’s lawyer, the judge looked at the photos and declared the defendant guilty.

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.
Good luck, hooligans, and let me know how you fare.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Illinois Red Light Camera Update: Berwyn is still trying to rob you

Well, after my initial Berwyn-inspired post detailing what you need to know about red light cameras in Illinois, there have been a few updates.

Needless to say, Berwyn is still trying to take your money. And they're doing it in more creative ways than I even realized! Take a look at the video below looking northbound at the corner of Harlem and Cermak and try to spot the infraction:

Did you see it? Look again. Did you see that white car taking a left? Bingo...

It appears Berwyn has a SECOND camera aimed at a slightly different angle, snapping pictures of motorists who go LEFT in the intersection after the yellow left arrow disappears. Now, this is marginally less insidious that what I have already chronicled in their right on red trap, but it's still greasy, given that when that yellow arrow disappears, it guessed it, a green light.

Essentially, Berwyn is doing what so many communities across the country are doing - studying the most common, yet harmless, driver tendencies, and turning them into cash. In this left-on-red case, I have nothing I concrete to prove that Berwyn isn't within its smarmy rights, but it is also well within my rights to keep you informed of what they are doing to take your hard-earned money.

On another note, you may recall that in my original post, I advised you to ALWAYS appear in court to dispute a violation, and today I have a success story, which is hopefully the first of many. Bill writes (Ha, Bill and Ted, excellent!):

Hi Ted:

I just wanted to let you know the I ticket I got at the camera-monitored red light at Harlem and Cermak was set aside due to what the judge said was “reasonable doubt” I’m not going to quibble as I could easily have envisioned the same judge fining me for my quick stop. I was ready to go with my “lack of signage” argument and had the pictures from your web site in hand but never had to use them.

The judge appeared to be the same older distinguished fellow as you described in your website. He appeared to be well-read, fair, with a sense of humor but one who would truck no nonsense. He rendered a “reasonable doubt” verdict to one fellow who responded with a beaming smile to which the judge sternly stated. “Stop your smirking like you got away with something because you didn’t. I’m just ruling a reasonable doubt” There were no post-verdict smiles after that.

It’s funny but amongst the 20 people or so that went before me I’d bet that he let off about 15 of them with the same “reasonable doubt” verdicts. To the other five he said “Sir, you didn’t even try to stop”. I don’t know- maybe Berwyn is feeling a little bit of embarrassment over the bad press it has been receiving both in the local papers and on websites like yours and is only going after the most obvious scofflaws?

As I said, I was going to contend that with the little sign being gone from the pole that the site looked more like an unmarked yield-right-of-way than a full-fledged stop point and that’s a big part of the reason I move through the zone so quickly. If that sign was present there is no way I would have gone through it. I wonder if anyone had ever raised the issue. Well, may be a moot point now because Berwyn I thought I saw a new sign just this week.

So Ted I again want to thank you for the pointers I got from your webpage in preparing for the hearing. It truly is a public service and I hope others will read it as well. And like the judge suggested I will be doing the old “One Mississippi- Two Mississippi-Three-Mississippi” at every one of my future stop signs. So if you get stuck behind me please lay off of the horn.

Best Regards,

You're most welcome, Bill. Just one person having a positive outcome makes this worth it, but I hope for many more.

And thanks, Bill, for THIS LINK. As I said in my initial post, Rahm Emanuel is on the wrong side of this issue (as expected), and reading this just made my blood boil.

We've got a long road ahead....with a lot of cameras on it...

Related Material:

Click here for all you need to know about Red Light Cameras in Illinois

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cat vs. Shark

Plumber...telegram...candygram...yes, that old landshark is back, and he's full of hot air...well, helium actually. This time, he's coming after cats. But they're not having any of it. No really - they want absolutely nothing to do with it.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

We didn't start the Internet Fire

If you're new to the Internet, or to Youtube in particular, this music video should get you all caught up in no time. Serving as the virtual "Kevin Bacon" of YouTube, this video is six-degrees from everything you can possibly want to see. If you have quick fingers, you can follow links to videos you haven't yet seen. After you've seen them all, you win a prize...sublime happiness ...and blurred vision.

Friday, September 7, 2012

What I Did Last Summer: by Tom Brady and Eli Manning

Rare is it for a piddly little blog like this one to get the jump on a world full of all-powerful news agencies, but we are proud to say we have done it, uncovering footage of a top secret meeting that took place this past Summer between NFL titans Tom Brady and Eli Manning.

After falling a second time in the biggest game to Manning, Tom Brady decided to take action, arranging to meet privately with Eli Manning to settle the score, find redemption, and knock out a few teeth. What happened was amazing, profound, and remarkably well-documented for a "top secret meeting."

Without further Bob McAdoo, here it is...

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Christmas Story: The Board Game

Some time last year, the family and I toured the house in Cleveland, Ohio, where they filmed the exteriors for the all-time great movie A Christmas Story. Despite the bone-chilling cold, we had lots of fun, and even braved an open-air ride in the Old-timey fire-engine used to rescue Flick from that flagpole (Side subject: Is yanking one's tongue off a frozen pole considered a rescue? Discuss.).

It was the anniversary of the release of the film, so there were cool things going on - the firetruck rides, and various actors from the film in town. We managed to meet the Leg Lamp delivery guy (actors like Randy and Scut were downtown at the A Christmas Story convention, or something like that), but he was very nice, and had a ton of stories to tell.

At the gift shop, of course, there were Leg Lamp night lights and tree ornaments, Flick hats, Bunny suits, and so on. When decided to purchase the A Christmas Story board game, we thought we were in for hours and hours of nostalgic fun. Instead, we were in for hours and hours of poring over a super-complicated rules. Oh well, at least something good came out of this video. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

AT&T totally rips off Fedex Kinkos

As of 2010, AT&T was the 7th largest company in the United States by total revenue, the 4th largest non-oil company in the U.S. (behind Walmart, General Electric and Bank of America), and the 3rd largest company in Texas by total revenue (behind ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips) and the largest non-oil company in Texas.

So I'm pretty sure AT&T spends a pretty penny on marketing. Do the folks there really have no idea that their latest advertisement is blatant rip off? Or are they thinking, "Well, if it was good enough for FedEx, it's good enough for us." Apparently, this isn't the first time AT&T has skimmed off the top of other companies' ideas.

Furthermore, if AT&T can't make an original commercial, why should you think their phones aren't just late-to-the-party attempts to imitate better technology? Not fair, AT&T? Your ad campaign is your virtual relationship with the consumer. If you can't do something as simple as that with integrity, then I'm not going to expect you to stick to the highest standards on your phone either.

Here's a "clever," "new" AT&T commercial released this month:

If only FedEx hadn't done the same thing, and funnier, in January 2007:

AT&T's next campaign? A man wandering the country using one of their phones and saying: "Are you able to hear my voice at this moment?" Change enough words from "Can you hear me now?" and it's totally original, right?