Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A Visit to Massachusetts Traffic Court

We took a little excursion yesterday to see how things work in Massachusetts Traffic Court. It was educational. Massachusetts speeding tickets and other tickets matter to drivers from there and from other states.

For MA drivers, most moving violations put two "surcharge points" on your driving record. Major violations, such as a DUI, are 5 points. The official explanation is at the Massachusetts Safe Driver Insurance Plan.

Massachusetts is not a member of the Drivers License Compact, but we believe they still report violations to other states. Per Chapter 2 of the RMV manual (pdf), most out-of-state tickets will affect a MA driver.

We talked after court with the police officer there. He said that the typical increase for one 2-point ticket is $200/year. The impact can last 6 years, though the SDIP explanation (see link above) indicates it's more complicated than that.

So how does Court work? Keep in mind that we went to only one court and only saw one "judge" - they're called Magistrate, or Clerk-Magistrate - and one police officer. We suspect that things may vary depending on the court, magistrate, and officer.

From what we saw, here's the deal:

1. Your case is scheduled for an initial hearing with the Clerk-Magistrate. You have to show up. We're researching whether a lawyer can appear for the client or if the client has to come. Practically speaking we think that a lawyer who does his homework can handle your case without you there.

2. They kept the courtroom empty. I'm not sure where the defendants waited, but probably a nearby waiting room. A bailiff comes out and gets you for your case. The Magistrate was kind enough to allow us to watch.

3. The officer in court presents the case. Usually this will not be the person who wrote the ticket, but someone from that police agency.

4. After the officer speaks, it's your turn. You present your case (or you don't).

5. The Magistrate decides the case, finding you responsible or not responsible. In some cases the officer in court does not have enough information and the Magistrate will find you not responsible.

6. The Officer may agree to convert your ticket into a warning. Two things seem to play a role in this decision -- your driving record and your attitude. If you admit guilt and have a clean record, you have a better shot at the warning. You're probably not getting this on a high speed or serious infraction, but you might get it on a minor violation.

7. If you are found responsible, you can appeal. This is a de novo hearing with a judge in the district court. De novo means new -- you get a fresh shot at the case. The officer who wrote the ticket has to appear, and you do too.
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