Traffic court is not a place you want to find yourself if you’re a law-breaking driver. Not because the court itself is an intimidating place — it’s not. If there’s a more bland, uninspiring room in all of Christendom, I’ve never seen it. No, the main reason you don’t want to land in traffic court standing in front of the judge’s perch is that you will never win. That’s never, with a capital N.
Unless you are Jesus Christ pleading the case that you, among the thousands of traffic violators, deserve to be let off, good luck. You have a better chance of winning the Lotto and getting struck by lightning in the same day than you do of getting out of a traffic ticket.
More likely, you will stand before the judge sweating marbles and blinking like an idiot, and listen to him or her dress you down in a way your mom did back in the days when you ate crayons and cut up her hosiery with safety scissors. And that’s precisely why traffic court is so entertaining, assuming you’re an observer. On days when the cops and the defendants both show up, the scene is positively Shakespearean in comedic value.
I know this because I have spent many an afternoon sitting on the courtroom’s wooden benches, which are so hard your bum falls asleep in the time it takes a judge to give a safety lecture to a cowering speeder. I’ve been to traffic court both as an observer and as a participant — far more often the latter, to be honest. Yes, I am a recovering speeder.
Since I quit speeding, I’ve kind of been missing traffic court. So I decided to pay my old haunt a visit. Recently, I spent a day there, marveling at the creative excuses people invent for their spectacularly bad, and often shockingly dangerous, driving.
In Vermont, traffic court is actually a municipal hearing within the Judicial Bureau. Its judges are responsible for specific territories and travel from court to court.
In Chittenden County, the judge is a no-nonsense stickler named Rita Flynn Villa. According to one of the clerks, who wouldn’t give her name because she wasn’t authorized to speak for the court, Judge Villa has presided over traffic-court hearings for 20 years. (She did not respond to requests for an interview.) As a result, she does not suffer fools gladly and is unlikely to give people breaks they don’t deserve.
On the day I went in, Villa, dressed in a voluminous black robe and aided by a cane, walked slowly to the bench after the clerk instructed those assembled to rise. The first case involved a man who was caught driving 47 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone on Cochran Road in Richmond. When the police officer finished providing the facts of the case, the defendant, dressed in a late-model double-breasted blazer and nonmatching cargo pants, was given a chance to defend himself.
He told the judge he would like a reduction in the fee — a hefty $271.60.
“I feel that this fine will put me in significant financial hardship,” he said.
This is something Villa hears countless times a day. Her answer is always the same.
“Fines are supposed to be unpleasant, not devastating,” she said, peering down at the defendant, who countered by talking about his good driving skills.
“But let’s talk about the fine,” Villa went on, curtly. “Why would this put you in financial hardship?”
The defendant told the court he was a single father whose sole source of income was student loans. When the judge pressed him about custody of his child, he said he shared it with the mother.
Villa seemed swayed, but barely. The defendant didn’t get off without a lecture.
“The best way to avoid fines is not to speed,” she pointed out. The fine was reduced to $150.
In the next case, the defendant had been cited for failing to obey a police order and blowing through a red light on Shelburne Road. After the officer — decked out in motorcycle leathers — explained the circumstances of the traffic stop, the driver spent five minutes detailing why he kept driving when he saw the cop flagging him down — and later when he saw and heard lights and sirens.
“My truck is really high off the ground, and I could only see the officer from his shoulders up,” the defendant explained, his hands shaking like a coffee fiend’s. A husky man in muddy work boots, the defendant also claimed the traffic light was yellow when he passed through it. At this, Villa launched into an explanation of traffic-signal timing.
Apparently, there are three seconds between yellow and red. If you are a car length from the light when it’s yellow, it may be safe to proceed, she said. If you are 10 car lengths away, maybe not so safe.
“Vehicles are not intended to be T-boned,” Villa continued. “Even at very low speeds, you can have a fatality. The chances of getting T-boned when you ignore a yellow light are very high. This is such a serious safety violation. Judgment for the state.”
Next up was a driver who had been ticketed for traveling 57 miles per hour in a 30-mile-per-hour zone on Shelburne Road. When it was her turn to speak, the defendant offered no excuse for her bad driving.
“I just wanted to say, this is my first ticket,” she said. “Since then, I have drastically changed the way I drive.”
The clerk told me later that every time a defendant says he or she has a good driving record or has never gotten a ticket before, the clerk looks it up. If the defendant does not have a clean record, he or she is committing perjury, and the clerk hands a note to the judge to that effect.
After attesting to her changed ways behind the wheel, the defendant told Villa she would have a hard time paying the fine. Again, the judge wanted a reason for the hardship.
“Tell me why this will be more than unpleasant,” she said.
The defendant explained that, after she pays her rent, there’s little left over to pay the nearly $250 fine.
“Is there anything else you want to say?” Villa asked.
“I just want to say I’m really sorry,” the defendant replied, looking down at her sneaker-clad feet.
Not the right thing to say in Villa’s courtroom.
“Speeding isn’t a moral failing; it’s a safety problem,” Villa said gravely. “This is a social concern. You may not hit a tree. You may hit one of us.”
The judge reduced the fine to $150, but the points remained.
In Vermont, traffic-court judges cannot reduce points. If a reduction is warranted, the officer typically does it during the traffic stop, the clerk told me later. Because many people get breaks when the ticket is issued, the court doesn’t take kindly to individuals who contest the fine after the cop has shown some benevolence.
One of the more egregious fib fests of the day happened toward the end of the afternoon session. The driver was ticketed for traveling 49 miles per hour in a 30-mile-per-hour zone. His sob story went a little like this:
“There was this black Audi that was driving next to me, and the radar must have picked up his speed, because I wasn’t speeding, because I was in a company car. If I’m caught speeding, I’ll get fired. So I don’t speed. The insurance company won’t cover us if we have points on our license.”
Judge Villa didn’t know where to begin with this doozy. She started by picking apart the defendant’s claim of clean driving like a hungry vulture ripping through road kill.
With the help of the clerk, Villa determined that the defendant had already received a speeding violation in 2009 and yet miraculously hadn’t lost his job. The defendant backpedaled, telling the judge he could only get one violation a year. In that case, Villa said, he should be fine as long as he didn’t get another ticket in 2010.
Then she proceeded to shred his argument about the radar, which is actually a laser device that tracks vehicle speeds with an excruciatingly accurate beam. A word of advice: In traffic court, laser rules.
“One of the advantages of laser is that it’s very specific,” Villa said before giving a recitation on laser-beam width. “Judgment for the state as charged.”
The defendant, slick looking in gray dress trousers, a snugly fitting black shirt and polished shoes, balked. He asked if he could have extra time to pay. Villa asked why.
“This year’s been tough, and that’s a lot of money,” he said. What he neglected to tell Villa was that he was a successful franchise owner who most likely could not get canned for having too many license points. That is, unless he fired himself.
The judge seemed unmoved. True tales of hardship are few and far between in traffic court. Most people who pass through the courtroom doors have clearly violated traffic laws and deserve to be punished, myself included.
Villa’s ability to sniff out an honest story in the steaming pile of tall tales and half-truths is part of what makes traffic court so fun. That is, assuming you’re on the right side of the law.