For Katherine Martin of Arlington, it was a simple incident one sunny afternoon last April that led her into the mass of confusion that is the daily life of the District of Columbia's traffic court.
She was driving along G Street in downtown Washington, on her way to a department store to put her winter coats in storage for the summer, she said later, when she came upon a police cruiser stopped in the road in front of her. She said she turned on her directional signal and passed around him. The policeman plurged her with driving on the wrong side of the street.
When she protested the $15 ticket he gave her, Miss Martin said the policeman told her "Tell it to the judge."
"I'll see you in court," she said $99[word illegible]$120him
Spurred on by what she called the "moral principle of the king" Miss Martin got up at 6 a.m. on Wednesday and threze over to 'D.C. Superior Court for her trial. What $99[word illegible]$120when she got there was enough to drive her out of court $99[word illegible]$120school, defeated by themend of people $99[word illegible]$120paper in the D.C. Superior Court's Room $99[word illegible]$120traffic court.
She tried to manenver through the system determined to get herself a trial. She fought her way through a small crowd of people swarming around the court clerk, trying to locate the "jackets" on their cases or find out when their cases would be called. She resisted efforts of a defense attorney who tried to persuade her to give up of a divice to have her say and go to trafffic school instead.
She persisted $99[world illegible]$120two hours went to the courtroom was getting stuffy. People were fanning themselves with their citations. She had to get to the funeral of a friend. The clerk couldn't find the jacket on her case. The judge was running so far behind court officials told her "you ought to got o traffic school."
She gave in.
"I swear I didn't do anything wrong," she said as she headed out of the courthouse, off to New York Avenue and traffic school.
It is 9 a.m. and traffic court is "open," according to the sign that hangs on the wall outside the door to Courtroom No. 14.But for now, activity centers around a lerk in the corridor under another sign that reads "All Moving Violations in This Line." Here every defendant who intends to have his case heard that day must check in with a bailiff and declare whether he wants a trial, traffic school or intends to plead guilty. The people are dutifully lined up, holding pink or yellow copies of their traffic tickets.
There $99[world illegible]$120cases set down on the morning calendar $99[world illegible]$120of those defendants have checked in. It is $99[word illegible]$120average turnout. According to a report of trafffic enforcement prepared for Mayor Washington on last APril, 75 per cent of the motorists scheduled to appear for trial don't show up. A judicial summons and later an arrest warrant are sent.$99[word illegible]$120according to the report, almost 200 judicial$99[world illegible]$120which notify the motorists to request a new court date, are issued per court today. Eventually 120 of the summonses turn itno arrest warrants when the motorists again fails to respond to the court, according to the report.
By 10 a.m., there is standing room only in Court-room No. 14. The Place is filled with defendants, their relatives, friends children. Police offficers are here to explain why they issued the tickets, and, there are lawyers present - some with clients, others who are waiting for the judge to assign them a case.
Walking up and down the main aisle of the courtroom, the lawyers and police officers are calling out names. "Any witnesses in the Susan Martin case? Step up, please." Some of the motorists who have checked in are getting impatient already and seem to be confused. They march back and forth from their seats to the well of the courtroom where the court clerk sits. The clerk is the man with the answers. He is surrounded by people and paper.
According to the mayor's study, based on 1975 figures, 30 per cent of the people in court on moving violations will volunteer to go to traffic school. For that, no points will be assessed against their driver's license, no fine will have to be paid and the charge against them will eventually be dropped.
Of the 300 to 400 cases scheduled for a given day in traffic court, an average of five will be tried each day, according to the report.
Seventy-five per cent of the accident cases in 1976 that involved property damage were not taken to trial because either the witnesses or the police officers involved were not available or because the complainant in the case didn't show up to testify, Frank P. Miller, the chief of the Law Enforcement Section of the Corporation Counsel's Office confirmed last week. It was understood that these complants were dismissed.
At 10:45 a.m., the judge took his seat. The parade of defendants began.
The mayor's report, which was supported by the board of judges of the Superior Court proposed that prosecution of parking offenses and minor traffic violations be taken out of the city courts and handled by hearing examiners supervised by the city's Department of Transportation.
The regularly scheduled traffic court judge was ill, so Robert Alan ker, former head of the Superior Shuker was called on to sit in. Shu-Court division of the U.S. Attorney's Office, chief government prosecutor in the 1973 Hanfi Muslim murder trial, was once cited by his fellow U.S. attorneys for self-sacrifice, courage, intelligence personal empathy and professional fairness. He is a newly appointed Superior Court judge. Wednesday was he second day on the bench and his first time in traffic court.
Before he donnetl his black robe that morning, he said he took a little time to learn what traffic court is all about. He talked to the clerks and read some of the court rules.
"Judges with the best of intentions can let the volume get away with them," Shuker said, smoking a cigarette in his chambers about 5 p.m. after traffic court had adjourned for the day. He had taken three brief recesses, which amounted to about a 40 minute break in the day.
"Please make it clear I don't have enough information to draw any conclusions...on the basis of one hectic days," the judges said. "But it's quite an experience."
One a person has checked in with bailiff at the desk outside Courtroom 14, a white cardboard folder on their case, called the "jacket" is supposed to be sent into the courtroom to the court clerk. The jacket contains an original copy of the ticket issued and a paper signed by the prosecutor alleging what offense was committed. Without a jacket, a person gets nowhere in traffic court. If a person's jacket hasn't been sent into courtroom, he could sit in Courtroom 14 for hours and never hear his name called. Even if the jacket is there, hours could pass by before a person's case comes before the clerk.
Michael Logan, the bailiff whose job it is to funnel jackets in and out of the courtroom, sits in what's known as Room 12, across the hall from Courtroom 14.
His office is bare except for two well worn desks, a couple of chairs and hundreds of white cardboard jackets. They are stacked on the floor, the window sill and the desks. Logan, 22, sits with his right foot up on his desk, shoeless, but covered with a brown sock that has a sizable hole in sole. He has a ligament injury, he says. His crutches rest against the wall in one corner of the room. He appears tobe one at whom the lawyers and motorists direct their wrath over the never ending delays. That day, Logan said, he got up on one foot and chased a man out of the office, waving a crutch.
Brown cardboard covets the small windows in the double doors that lead to the hall from Logan's office. Scrawled on the cardboard on the right side is the message "Leroy was here!...But went home 'cause they couldn't find his jacket..." On the left it says "Have a happy Day!"
At 9:45 a.m. back in Courtroom 14, the clerk is standing up. Court has yet to begin. "At this time I would like to inquire if you would like to attend traffic school," the clerk asks.
Traffic school is "merely an option to going to trial," he says. If a person goes to traffic school, they don't get any points their driver's license for bad driving, no fine is paid and the prosecutor, upon graduating from traffic school will drop his charges. If a person decides to go to trial instead, and the judge finds them guilty, they could get points and a fine. Of course, there are qualifications for traffic school. The rules are that a candidate must not have any pjoints against his license, must not have attended traffic school within the past three years, and must not be in court because he was involved in an accident. A person charged with a serious violation, like drunk driving or driving with a suspected license is not eligune for traffic shcool.
"At this point we don't know which judge will sit,"$99[word illegible]$120He explains that some judges will let a person up to traffic school even if they have points. Some won't.
He begins to call out names of defendants. Those who opt out of court and into traffic school are instructed to sit in the jury box. Those who don't sit in the courtroom. And wait.
AAt 10:20 a.m., the clerk announces that Judge Shuker will be on the bench and his policy is not to send people to traffic school if they have points. They must post colateral or stand trial. The clerk warns that, with the number of people in court that day, it will be at least late morning or the afternoon before many cases are called.
A groan fills the courtroom. More people opt for traffic school.
"This is the first time I've had a problem, I'm not going to lie about it," the man in the pink jeans and brown shirt standing before Judge Shuker says. He didn't want a lawyer and said he didn't need one. He was pleading guilty to failure to keep the proper lane, driving while intoxicated, excessive speed and reckless driving.
At this point, Judge Shuker decides to explain that while there are no court funds to pay for lawyers appointed to traffic court cases, where the panalties are high, some defendants really should consider talking to a lawyer before they enter a plea on their own.
The man in the pink jeans agrees to do so. His case is "passed" for now.
Next up is an "operating without goggles," then a "backing out without caution" and an "inadequate parking brakes."
"Where are they getting these hummers from?" asked one policeman, laughing at what apparently seemed to him like a frivolous charges.
People are shifting around in their seats now, as the day wears on, rubbing their foreheads, sighing, dozing off. On one side of the courtroom, a young man sits on the floor, his back against the wall, his eyes closed.
A young man strides down the center asile of the courtroom. Written across the front of this tee shirt is "Miranda v. Arizona" as well as the citation to the law reporter where that Supreme Court case, which requires police to read defendants their rights before interrogation, can be found.
"Madhouse isn't it?" joked one policeman. It is now 1 p.m. in Court-room 14. Judge Shuker has called for a 10-minute recess, the first of the day. People rushed up to the clerk's desk in the front of the courtroom to find out how much longer they were going to have to sit ont hose hard wooden benches. Everybody talked at once. NOmes were being called out.
"You act like you ain't been in this courtroom before," Patricia J. Lyons, the court clerk for the afternoon told one attorney.
"Don't make mmeget nasty," she said.
It is nearing the end of the day. The white-haired woman in the black print pantsuit now before Judge Shuker is charged with excessive speed. She decides to defend herself.
The police officer is called to the witness stand by C.B. Jones, the corporation counsel who acts as the prosecutor in traffic court that day. The police officer rattles off the details of the offense: Thursday, May 5, 7:55 p.m. Blue Dodge. Clocked by a Decatur Range Master 715 at 41.2 miles per hour in a 25 miles per hour zone. The radar had been calibrated twice that night. There was no mistake.
"I told you it wasn't my car," said the woman as she began her across examination of the police officer. Moreover, she wanted to knwo, why the policeman never told her he was using radar.
"No, I did not sir...I beg your pardon sir," said the woman as the policemen tried to testify.
"Don't argue with the witness," Judge Shuker cautioned her.
"Do you have any farther questions?" Judge Shuker asked her.
"No, nothing more," the woman said, but she continued to argue she didn't know the policeman was using radar.
Guilty as charged, said the judge. The penalty is $25. The woman smiled politely. Someone took her to the finance office to pay up.
By the end of the day, over in Room 12, Bailiff Michael Logan estimates that a total of 598 cases wer scheduled to come up that day and about 181 people showed up, including about 40 parking ticket cases.
Judge Shuker relaxed in his chambers. "I tried to do as much as I could to let them know they are human beings in a court of law but it's hard to do," he said.