Traffic Tickets Snarl Idaho Courts Drivers Who Protest Infractions Are In It For The Long Haul
When a police officer handed Robinson Whaley a ticket for failing to yield the right of way, Whaley decided then and there he was going to fight it.
“I feel I’m definitely not at fault,” the 74-year-old Post Falls man said. “I know I’m in the right.”
Whaley had no idea it would be more than a year before he’d get a chance to prove it.
Whaley was ticketed in April 1994 when he made a left turn that a police officer didn’t like.
Like most people who decide to fight their tickets, Whaley had to wait many months - 15 to be exact - to get a trial. He will plead his case before a judge on Friday.
The cases are a low priority in a court system bursting with more serious crimes. On top of that, growing traffic in Kootenai County has meant more infractions.
Idaho State Police officers may write 300 to 700 speeding tickets in a year, said Capt. Ralph Powell.
Time erodes the memory of officers who wrote the tickets. Waiting frustrates defendants who long for their chance at vindication. Sometimes, cases must be dismissed.
“I figured it would take a couple of months,” said Lois Thomas, who was cited for illegally passing another driver in April 1994. “I live through it every day - it has bothered me that much.”
Judges are trying to remedy the problem - but as always, real solutions take money.
It takes at least 12 months for most infraction cases to make their way to a Kootenai County judge, said Judge Eugene Marano.
Of the 10 cases scheduled for trial Friday, the most recent one is 10 months old. The oldest citation of the bunch was written in December 1993 - 19 months ago.
In 1991, the Kootenai County court system handled 13,299 infractions. That number increased by about 10 percent to 14,363 in 1994, according to Idaho Supreme Court statistics.
Relatively minor offenses are considered infractions - speeding, failing to stop at a stop sign, parking in the wrong place.
Typically, they amount to no more than a ticket.
The driver usually has between five and 21 days to pay a fine or plead not guilty. If he or she pleads not guilty, the case goes to trial before a magistrate.
Some people plead not guilty just so they can have a longer time to pay the ticket, said court clerk Cindy O’Reilly. Others plead not guilty but forget about it by the time their trials roll around.
“They’ll get their court date in the mail and they’re like, ‘Oh, what’s this for?”’ O’Reilly said.
For Whaley, just paying the $45 ticket was not an option. He’s only been ticketed once before in his life. That was 54 years ago, and he paid it because he knew he was guilty.
But he is worried about his court date on Friday.
“It’s been so long now I’ve forgotten some things,” he said Wednesday.
He remembers the driver he turned in front of flashing the middle finger. But he doesn’t remember what the car or the other driver looked like.
Coeur d’Alene Police officer Mark Knapp doesn’t remember the man he cited for speeding on Dec. 11, 1993.
But by Friday he’ll have to.
To prepare for such trials, he will go over the citation he wrote, studying the name, the location and the type of vehicle. Officers depend heavily on their notes to refresh their memories.
“I’m always concerned whether I’m going to remember the defendant or not,” he said Wednesday. “It’s vital for us. A year and a half, two years, I don’t think anyone can blame an officer.”
The time lag on today’s cases makes them difficult to prosecute, as well. Officers and witnesses may move. It would probably not be worth the cost to bring an officer up from Boise for a speeding ticket trial, said Roy Gowey, deputy city attorney. The case would instead be dismissed.
It takes so long for traffic tickets to go to trial partly because there’s no time limit on them.
Unlike other criminal trials, infraction cases do not have to meet the speedy trial requirement. Crimes, such as domestic battery and assault, have to be set for trial within about six months.
Judges in North Idaho are juggling a growing number of serious criminal cases. During the first six months of 1995, 17 percent more criminal cases have been filed in magistrate court than were filed during the first six months of 1994.
The Ada County Courthouse handled 40,157 infractions in 1994 - about 2-1/2 times the number in Kootenai County.
But court clerks there say that 90 percent of the tickets that come in today can be scheduled for a trial by December or January.
However, Ada County also has 14 magistrates, compared with Kootenai County’s five.
Another problem in Kootenai County is space, Judge Marano said. Magistrates from other counties come to Kootenai County to help with the caseload. More could come but there just isn’t enough court room for them, he said.
To ease the problem, the judges are asking Kootenai County commissioners for three or four more courtrooms, said Judge James Judd.
Frustrating as it has been, Lois Thomas said Wednesday the wait is worth it.
“I feel I did not do anything wrong,” she said. “I have a right to vindicate myself when I have been wrongly accused.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo; Graphic: Kootenai County tickets