Tuesday, October 16, 2012

HPD's dirty little ticket secret

We all know that it's hard to win in traffic court. The officer has his shiny gadget that tells him how fast you may or may not have been driving - a readout that no one but him ever sees. And what about when he asks you for your driver's license and insurance? Chances are there's no one else in the car to contradict a word he says.

As far as the prosecutor and cashier judge are concerned he's got you on three grounds. Maybe you've got your insurance card to prove you had coverage at the time of the stop. Okay, that's one for you.

But what about that driver's license. There's no question it was valid at the time of the stop. But were you carrying it with you? Remember, it's your word against his.

Maybe they offer to dismiss the no driver's license charge if you take a deferred on the speeding case. Or maybe they offer you deferred on one and defensive driving on the other. All works out the same in the end - the city gets what it wants and you get screwed.

Happens every day in every court in the Municipal Courthouse.

But now there's a little twist.

What if the police officer has already preset his ticket-writing computer to issue citations for speeding, no insurance and no driver's license? Sounds crazy, doesn't it?

Unfortunately,  that's exactly what's been happening in Houston.

According to this article in the Houston Chronicle, Shirley Simmons was pulled over for speeding in a school zone near her grandson's school. What she didn't realize at the time was that the officer also cited her for failing to display a driver's license and for not having proof of insurance.

When she got home, put on her glasses and closely read the ticket, she discovered two incorrect charges: failure to display a valid Texas driver's license and lack of insurance. She went to two nearby Houston Police Department stations, but was directed to the traffic division downtown. 
After a supervisor spoke with her and the officer, the two extra violations were removed. She still must go to court later this month for driving 5 miles-per-hour over the limit. But Simmons, a disabled 61-year-old grandmother, wonders if officers are pre-setting tickets with violations in certain communities, like the crossroads of Sunnyside and South Acres, where she was stopped.

There is no doubt that there are a great number of drivers in our fair city who don't have a valid driver's license or insurance. I've had quite a few as clients of mine. But until Sgt. Robert Gonzales opened up his mouth without thinking, I had no idea that it was standard practice to have certain charges pre-set into the computer to save time.

Of course Sgt. Gonzales doesn't see it as a problem. And why should he? The traffic division is a fundraising unit for the City of Houston. The police aren't trained to look at people as being innocent unless proven otherwise. That kind of thinking is anathema to a police officer.

The problem, Sgt. Gonzales, is that no ticket spit out of a ticket-writing computer can be trusted anymore. We don't know if those charges were pre-set defaults or violations the officer actually observed. Hell, we don't even know if the ticket really tells us why the driver was stopped in the first place.

If a motorist is cited for speeding, failure to display a driver's license and not having proof of insurance - but they come to court with a valid driver's license and insurance card, wouldn't it be more likely that the motorist is being truthful when he says he wasn't speeding?

But, in a land in which judges are happy to sign check-the-box and fill-in-the-blank search warrant forms authorizing forcible blood draws in DWI cases, why should it surprise us that the police have rigged the ticket-writing computers?

And why, by the way, wasn't the officer who issued the ticket to Ms. Simmons not charged with filing a false government document? He pre-set the information. He knew it was pre-set. He printed out the ticket and handed it to Ms. Simmons. Then he filed a copy with the court.

Oh, but it was an accident. He didn't mean to do it. He was really sorry about it. Not that he did anything wrong, though.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't think showing the valid license and insurance would translate to the speed violation being any less valid. The speed violation was the reason they stopped her and presumably the strongest charge in most cases (as PC for the others, if any).

As far as the use of technology in such a manner, this does not seem to be a frequent issue or it would have come up sooner (they've had those devices for years), but by all means make them prove every case if there is any doubt. I would ask why the woman did not read what she was signing and question it right when she was stopped but ultimately, the city dismissed the erroneous charges.