Jeff McConnell & James Mennella
Attorneys at Law
When you call us, you tell us about the problem you're having with a traffic citation or criminal matter and we give you our recommendation based on the facts, the particular state, the particular court and particular law.
That sounds relatively simple, but, how does a particular court system really work given all the different courts in the country. We've only got room in this column for about 1,000 words, so we can't tell you how every court system works, but we can tell you about some of the more "popular" ones.
Question: I got a ticket in Texas and the bottom of the ticket says I've got to go the "JP Court." What's a JP Court?
Answer: Generally, in Texas, the courts that primarily deal with typical traffic offenses are the JP - which is short for justice of the peace - municipal and county courts.
If you're old enough to remember the original "Andy Griffith Show," then you already know how the Texas JP courts work because it's just like the system that Sheriff Andy had in North Carolina.
You've got Andy, the good-ol-boy, non-lawyer judge, and Barney, the cop who not only writes you the ticket, but is also the prosecutor when you go to court for trial. If you're convicted at trial, you can go appeal to the County Court and have another, totally new trial if you want.
Question: I was in Pennsylvania and got a ticket for speeding 65 mph in a 40 mph zone. My ticket doesn't have a court date on it. How do I know when to go to court?
Answer: Most Pennsylvania tickets don't list a court date on the ticket itself. Instead, the directions on your ticket tell you to "post a bond." This means that you have to send your ticket and a money order or cashier's check to the particular court and plead "not guilty."
Once you do this, the court will send you a trial notice that includes the time and place of your trial summary. Like the JP Courts in Texas, the Magistrate Courts in Pennsylvania also use many non-attorney judges and have the ticketing officer act as prosecutor.
Also, like Texas, if you don't like what happens at your first trial, you can appeal within 30 days of being convicted and have a totally new trial in a different court.
Question: My driver's license is from North Carolina, and I got a ticket in Florida about two months ago for speeding. I called the court and even spoke with the prosecuting attorney about my ticket. The prosecutor said that he'd give me "Withheld Adjudication" so I wouldn't get any points on my driving record and that all I had to do was just pay the ticket on time, which I did.
Yesterday, I got a copy of my driving record and saw the Florida ticket on my record and I got two points for it! Why is the ticket on my record and why did I get points? Did the prosecutor lie to me?
Answer: No, the prosecutor didn't lie to you. Unfortunately, you're a victim of the "Driver License Compact" between the states. Here's how it works:
Each state has its own motor vehicle code, and each one is different from the other. So, when you get a ticket in a state different from where you're licensed, your home state's motor vehicle code rules.
In this example, no matter what kind of deal the Florida prosecutor gave you, it just didn't matter because your driver's license isn't from Florida. When the Florida court sent your "Withheld Adjudication" plea to the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, the DMV notified your home state of North Carolina.
Then, according to the Violator Compact Treaty, the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles simply put the conviction of the original charge on your record and allocated the appropriate points, just as if you got the ticket in North Carolina.
The bottom line - it doesn't really matter where you get your ticket. Your home state motor vehicle code will always apply.
Question: I got a ticket in New Mexico and the officer told me to sign my full name at the bottom of the ticket and initial the "red square" on the face of the ticket.
When I called to find out when my court date was, I was told that I couldn't have one because I initialed the red "penalty assessment" square on the front of the ticket and basically pleaded guilty on the side of the road. I tried to explain that I didn't want to plead guilty but was told there was nothing I could do now. Is that true?
Answer: New Mexico is the only state that has the unique feature of letting you plead guilty on the side of the road by simply signing the "penalty assessment" line.
Penalty Assessment is a division of the New Mexico Department of Revenue and isn't related to any New Mexico court at all. In order for this practice to be legal, the officer has to let you know what your options are. Unfortunately, most New Mexico State Police officers don't adequately inform drivers of their rights or inform them that they don't have to plead guilty.
Think about how ridiculous this procedure really is - you've got an agent of the state of New Mexico, the officer or trooper who's just accused you of breaking the law, suddenly becoming your best friend whose job now is to inform you of your rights.
Now, we were born at night - but it wasn't last night! Is New Mexico kidding? Do the New Mexico officials honestly believe they are complying with the due process requirements of the U.S. Constitution by condoning this farce? It's wrong, it's a travesty of justice, it's unconstitutional, we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more! Charge!
Oh, wait a minute - where were we?
Back to the question of whether there's anything you can do to take your ticket out of "penalty assessment." Procedurally, there may be one thing you can do, but it's technically and financially equivalent to trying to overturn a murder conviction.
The better policy would be not to get yourself in this kind of mess to begin with.
So remember, if you get a ticket in New Mexico, don't initial the little, red square with the red writing. Instead, just sign the very bottom of your ticket and ask the officer to fill in the appropriate court, time and date information. Remember: Marking the red means you're dead.
Send any questions or comments regarding transportation law to: Road Law, 3441 W. Memorial, Suite 4, Oklahoma City, OK 73134; fax to (405) 463-0565; send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (405) 463-0566.