Miles Silverman lives in Gaithersburg. He seldom has occasion to drive an automobile in Arlington.
But one day recently, while Miles was driving in Arlington, he made a left turn at an intersection where left turns are prohibited.
A policeman gave him a ticket. "I'm sorry," Miles said. "I didn't see the sign. Where can I pay my fine?" He was directed to the police station.
There, says Miles, "a special magistrate informed me the fine would be $15 - and the court costs would be $18." Miles pointed out that he was pleading guilty; there would be no trial, so why should there be court costs? The magistrate said there would have to be a hearing, even though the fine was already paid. "I feel ripped off," says Miles.
Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney William S. Burroughs Jr., offered some instructive background.
He said the magistrate may have been misunderstood. There will not have to be a hearing, but there had already been involvement with the court process, and court costs had therefore been incurred. The rationale for tacking on "court costs" is that those who use the courts, ought to pay a larger portion of court expenses than do people who are not involved in court cases. So the number of cases handled by a cost of running the court, and that produces a "per case" figure, "in this case-what did you say, $18? I think it's actually $18.75, but in any event, it's not just an arbitrary number. There's a reason for it.
"Your reader wants to know why he must pay his share of the costs even though he's pleading guilty; and I can sympathize with him. This is a question that has been asked many times.
"The reason is that the courts try to maintain a completely neutral system of justice. They try to avoid any arrangement that might encourage people to plead guilty for the sake of convenience. This, by the way, is an ABA-sponsored principle: a defendant should never be encouraged to plead guilty."
"ABA is American Bar Association?"
"And the idea is that if people could save court costs by pleading guilty it might induce some defendants to pay the $15 and be done with the matter rather than wait for a judge to hear the evidence?"
"That's right. The special magistrate has no discretion in a case. He can merely take your money. however, a judge who hears a case might feel that there were extenuating circumstances. He could suspend the fine, yet the defendant would still have to pay the court costs if he did break a law and as a result became involved in the court process."
Does that explain things? When you're on unfamiliar turf, keep a sharp lookout for traffic signs, and if you miss one, don't plead guilty.