Traffic Tickets Lawyer San Diego Elizabeth

When Police Can — and Can t — Pull You Over - Voice of San Diego

San Diego Superior Court officials are investigating whether some traffic ticket cases are being improperly handled using side deals between police officers and hired defense lawyers for motorists.

The practice appears to have become routine, and has raised the ire of one Superior Court judge.

In a three-page memo to court officials obtained by The Watchdog, El Cajon Judge Herbert Exarhos said he did not know of any legal basis that allows officers “to parlay their role of witness into one of prosecutor.”

The process turns traffic-court judges into rubber stamps, he said, and is “grossly unfair” to motorists who pay the fine, go to traffic school or brave a trial — because they do not know backchannel deals are available.

A California Highway Patrol official said the agency is looking into the complaint by Exarhos. Lt. Mike Berger said that officers are not supposed to negotiate reduced charges with defense lawyers.

“If that truly is happening as you say, that is improper, ” Berger said. “They should not be modifying the ticket or violation in court without the judge being involved.”

Jan Stiglitz, a law professor at California Western School of Law, said an officer negotiating with the lawyer “doesn’t look right” from the outside.

“I don’t make any assumption that there is money or favors exchanged, ” Stiglitz said. “But — it looks bad.”

Karen Dalton, public information officer for the court, said the administration is looking into the practice.

“This is something we are now aware of and have begun a factual investigation and legal evaluation, ” she said. “It would be premature to comment but the court will be formally addressing the issues and practices as soon as possible.”

Several traffic ticket attorneys defended the practice and said the judge misunderstands what happens in court.

Mitchell Mehdy, a veteran traffic lawyer whose advertises as “The Original Mr. Ticket, ” said bargaining for reductions provides needed flexibility in the system.

“Not every case gets reduced, ” he said. “There have got to be facts and circumstances behind it. If you make a compelling argument based on the circumstances or the facts of the ticket, that flexibility should be there.”

Elizabeth Aronson, another veteran traffic lawyer, said that lawyers discuss potential problems with the tickets, such as the speed radar not calibrated correctly, and then ask if the officer would object to a request by the lawyer to the traffic judge to reduce the charge.

“Who is in a better position than the officer to say it is OK to reduce the charge to something that is not a moving violation?” she said. “The officer is in the best position. It doesn’t mean he is negotiating, just saying whether he objects or not. We do it with the officer’s permission.”

The issue arose when Exarhos, a veteran East County judge, was assigned about 30 traffic cases on Aug. 24 because of an unusually heavy case calendar in El Cajon court’s traffic department. Each case filed had a handwritten yellow sticky note on it, explaining the charge was to be reduced.

Most of the cases were changed from a speeding violation to a violation of a vehicle code section prohibiting coasting in neutral gear. While the fines were about the same, there is a key difference: the coasting charge does not result in a point on a license, and does not require going to traffic school.

While that’s a good deal for the motorist, it’s not so good for local government. Every trip to traffic school carries a $55 administrative fee. Of that, $49 goes to the county general fund.

The proper procedure would be to have the motorist plead guilty to the ticket, or contest it by going to trial. Any reductions in charges would be made by the judge.

Court commissioners who allow the practice should be reassigned or even removed, Exarhos wrote in his memo. Commissioners are judicial officers who are appointed by the Superior Court judges and have limited authority.

Aronson said that the practice is not limited to El Cajon but occurs regularly across the county, and Exarhos said in his memo it is common throughout Southern California.

Traffic lawyers charge fees to fight tickets and some promise money back if the ticket is not dismissed. Both Aronson and Mehdy said drivers who don’t have lawyers could ask the officers for reductions, but said it’s probably better to have a lawyer.

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