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Life in the Fast Lane 

An attorney makes his case for contesting speeding tickets

Published May 26, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Until I was 37, I didn't even have a driver's license; I was an absolutely Urban Girl. However, I was living with a play-all-day-outdoors inner child, and she was whining noisily for a kayak. I realized Nature Girl would have more options if Urban Girl had a car.

Minutes after I passed my driver's test, I was driving alone in my car for the first time. And within 30 seconds, a Massachusetts state trooper just happened to pull into the lane behind me on his motorcycle. For a full 20 minutes he sucked my exhaust along with the smell of my fear. True adulthood has nothing to do with drinking, voting or buying a house in the suburbs. The real rite of passage? Mastering the paranoia a trooper can ignite -- even if you're driving absolutely legally, as I was. I didn't get a ticket that day, but the experience did leave a residue post-traumatic stress.

Chances are, though, that I will land a speeding ticket someday, and chances are that I'll feel it's unfair. If so, I can request a hearing instead of paying the fine, advises Burlington attorney Jonathan Stevens of Pro Se Legal Services. "Pro se" is Latin for "self-service." In a legal situation it means handling the proceedings on your own instead of having a lawyer represent you. Stevens, perhaps aware that many people equate retaining a lawyer with handing over their life savings, will counsel you for the flat rate of $100 an hour on how to be a DIY legal eagle.

Last Tuesday, he gave a free class about how to contest a speeding ticket. The event took place at Scrumptious in Burlington's Old North End over lunch, but Stevens was the only one eating. He told us that 20 to 30 percent of those who contest their tickets win, which didn't seem like a very good investment risk to me. I didn't want to seem defeatist, but I couldn't resist asking, "Why not just pay up?"

"It's the principle of the thing," offered Ed, a regional rep for a pharmaceutical company.

Confirming Ed's instincts, Stevens suggested, "If you're not willing to stand up for yourself over a traffic ticket, you're not going to do it for yourself anywhere else, either." Though this neatly summed up his forthcoming proposition, I was dazed by his leap of logic. I suppose it indicated a gulf between our respective definitions of self-sufficiency. To me it means learning how to put your kayak on the roof of your car by yourself. Perhaps Stevens thought going before a judge would be a better test of my character.

"Statistically speaking, with the number of miles I drive, it's going to happen," Ed continued. "Everybody speeds sometimes. But it's weird that I've never gotten a ticket when I was deliberately speeding, only when I didn't know I was going too fast." He also noted that "four out of five" of his tickets were from out of state, where, he surmised, "cops think you aren't going to come back and contest them."

Lisa agreed. She planned to speak directly to her New Hampshire hearing officer's rational side, explaining how unlikely it was that she was driving 30 miles over the speed limit on a secondary road with her two young daughters in the back seat.

Stevens was adamant that Lisa not go forward with this argument. "It basically makes it your word against the cop's," he said. "You want to behave as though you're not even going to entertain the question of whether you were speeding, because there are so many other questions that you need to have answered first."

Actually, the question of her speed was the only thing Lisa wanted to "entertain." Her evident frustration was a foil for Stevens' relish as he went on to ably demonstrate why lawyers win lawsuits and regular people break down and pay fines.

"In Vermont, you should learn whether you've been charged under a local ordinance. If so, whether it is a validly enacted local ordinance, and then whether you were really in the zone of that ordinance," Stevens explained. "The state has to answer all those questions. If the answer isn't appropriate, you might win on a technicality."

"But what about New Hampshire?" Lisa wanted to know.

"What about New York?" asked Ed.

"The laws are different in every state," Stevens replied.

"But I have to go to court in New Hampshire next Monday," Lisa persisted.

Here she ran smack up against Stevens' foundational rule of resistance: "Plan on investing time and money. Freedom isn't free, and neither is justice."

Tim, a bartender, took Lisa's momentary derailment as an opening in Stevens' forward motion. He wanted to talk about radar. "I'm coming to that," the attorney responded, glancing at the bulleted items on his handout.

"I just want to know what is going to happen when I get to court," Lisa rejoined more fiercely. "You know, who goes first and who says what."

"I'm going to answer that question, too," Stevens said, deflecting her. "But let me say this first." We returned to the technicalities.

"If you are driving on a road that has no posted speed limit, then the limit is generally 50 mph. If a township decides to lower that limit for some reason, they must meet the minimum rationality rule by doing an engineering study to prove they have a valid reason. If they haven't done an engineering study for the ordinance you were ticketed under, your case may be thrown out."

"But maybe not?" I asked, a tad exasperated, myself.

"Well, there is a provision in Vermont that if an ordinance has been passed for six years already, it isn't necessary to have done the engineering study," Stevens went on. "But you can get around that by making a constitutional issue out of the case, invoking the 14th Amendment: 'No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens [or] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.'"

I stared at Stevens. "Okay," he conceded, "that may seem extreme to you, but you are within your rights to make that argument."

I tried to imagine myself in court, invoking the 14th Amendment. But my thoughts wandered to my kayak, which was at that very moment sitting on top of my car. I began to notice what a nice afternoon it was.

"Will they throw it out then?" Tim burst in. Heads swiveled back to Stevens.

"Probably not. But this is your day in court. Take your time, build the case. That's what's effective. You have the right to ask the officer for a certified copy of the ordinance. Lisa, to answer your question, I don't know how it is in New Hampshire, but in Vermont the officer will present his or her case first... If he hasn't offered a certified copy of the ordinance, you can say to the judge, 'I'm sorry, but the officer has not proven that this is a validly enacted speed ordinance. He has not given me a certified copy of the ordinance.'"

"Will they throw out the case then?" Tim pushed.

"Well, probably not," said Stevens without a trace of irony. "These guys all know each other. He'll probably look at the officer and say, 'Jack, do you have a copy of the ordinance for this defendant?'"

"He'll give him another chance," I said, feeling my peripheral vision contract.

"And you can feel free to object then." Stevens was triumphant. "Your Honor, I don't believe you are supposed to be helping Officer Smith to present his case. Are you going to help me present my case?"

"I'm not going to drive all the way to Lebanon to ask for more time to find out what ordinance I was charged under if they aren't going to throw out the case anyway," Lisa said testily.

Stevens encouraged her to contact the court for permission to request "discovery" on the radar equipment involved. "You want the operator's manual, the maintenance and calibration logs, and the certification of the officer on the use of the equipment."

"Military radar is infallible," Tim put in. "If they are using that, you don't stand a chance. But the other kinds have different weaknesses."

When he raised this point, Tim and Stevens engaged in a fascinating exchange about the angle of the equipment to the approaching car, the calculations that could prove something called cosine error, and how to mathematically substantiate the inept angle of the cop's car.

Tim also noted that, despite his finely-developed talent of nosing out the hiding spots of police cruisers, he did get nabbed once in the St. Albans area. He contested the ticket, he admitted, "because the officer was an unusually good-looking woman," and he wanted to see her again.

Right about then I began to consider my options. And I decided that observing the legal speed limit was a gorgeously preferable measure, as neither Urban Girl nor Nature Girl felt any joy in discovering municipal ordinance loopholes. It's the principle of the thing.

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Susan Moul


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