If you've driven for any length of time, chances are fairly high that at some point you have or will see flashing lights in your rearview mirror.
Maybe you were speeding to get to your daughter's dance class. Perhaps you rolled through a stop sign in stereotypical California fashion. Maybe your taillight bulb burned out.
In northern San Joaquin County alone, 4,203 traffic infractions were filed with the court in the three months between February and April, according to Camey Joerke, court manager of the Lodi branch. That number doesn't include people with bigger issues, including felony violations.
About 75 percent of those ticketed simply pay the fine and go on with life. The others take the time off work to appear in court. And, during that three-month period, 175 people — about 4 percent — actually took their ticket to a mini-trial.
What happens in traffic court? Is it worth rescheduling a morning in hopes of getting out of the ticket? For some it might be, since a red light violation fine is $427 for those without prior infractions.
Fighting it? Here's what to expect
If you're wondering what would happen if you appear in court to fight your ticket or ask for leniency, here's how it typically works in Lodi:
It usually takes a few weeks from the time the citation was issued until you get a notice in the mail explaining your options. If you don't get a notice, make sure you contact the court before the appearance date on your copy of the citation.
In Lodi, traffic court starts at 9:30 a.m. Go through a metal detector and bag X-ray machine, wait until courtroom doors are opened, then settle into a gray padded seat in Department L2.
A bailiff presses "play" on a video player, and Judge Bob McNatt appears on a television screen. He explains your rights to have an attorney, a trial, to remain silent, and subpoena power.
Seven minutes later the judge, usually McNatt, appears in person.
On any given traffic arraignment day, several dozen people can be scheduled. One recent Monday had 28 people on calendar, which clerks said was actually low.
In other words, plan to take a couple hours off work.
McNatt tries to move quickly. He calls a name, waits until the person walks to the front of the courtroom, then briefly lists the offense.
One young man had been cited on April 8 for holding a cell phone while driving, his second such offense. McNatt asked what he wanted to do, and the man pleaded no contest. He was fined $137, signed a piece of paper, got his own copy and then left the courtroom within a matter of minutes.
A woman, wearing pink Tinkerbell pajama pants, was stopped for speeding on Lodi Avenue and was subsequently found to have no driver's license. Her fine: $623.
Proper clothing is important to judges in Lodi, and usually they won't allow people in the courtroom if they're wearing shorts, tank tops or flip-flops. One man was allowed in while wearing shorts that fell below the knees, though he got a mild rebuke from McNatt, and he apologized profusely.
Where traffic ticket fees go for a $203 speeding or stop sign violation
$13 to county courthouse construction fund.
$7 to state criminal fine surcharge.
$9 to county criminal justice facility fund.
$4 to DNA protection.
$4 to DNA ID fund.
$4 to county emergency medical fund.
$2 to finger print ID fund.
$13 to state court construction fund.
$40 to state assessment fund.
$7 to state court facility construction fund.
$6.30 to the county.
$28.70 to the city, less 2 percent to the county.
$30 to state court security assessment fee.
$35 to state criminal conviction assessment.
Though he wears a black robe and has the power to hand down stiff punishments, McNatt does have a sense of humor, as well as some compassion.
One man, Miguel Lopez, acknowledged that he'd been caught speeding, had a tinted windshield and then hadn't appeared in court. His troubles started when he bought a red Pontiac Trans Am, which he said attracted police.
"I've been driving for 18 years. I had that car a year and a half, and it was a magnet. I've gotten rid of it," Lopez told the judge.
McNatt smiled and replied, "I understand. I had a red Corvette — judges are not immune from tickets."
The fine still totaled $645, due in large part to the charge of failing to appear. Lopez took it in stride, saying before he took a seat, "I'm guilty, but I got rid of that car."
Judge McNatt's personal rule
McNatt was a police officer before he became a judge, and he handed out his share of tickets.
Now that he's on the bench, he has a personal rule about traffic ticket punishment: He'll give you a break if you've had no prior infractions, have had your California driver's license longer than one renewal period, and your ticket isn't for anything particularly serious — drunken driving or reckless driving are too serious to qualify.
"Good drivers deserve to be recognized," he tells first-time traffic offenders as he offers them a chance to plead no contest and have the fine stayed for a year. If the defendant doesn't have any other offenses during that year, the fine doesn't have to be paid, ever.
That's no guarantee, though. You never know if schedules have changed or vacations are happening, so a different judge might be presiding.
Once you appear in court the first time, you can either admit the charges or plead not guilty and head to trial by judge if it's an infraction. A jury trial is an option for misdemeanor and felony violations.
Traffic trials are held at 11 a.m. in the same Lodi courtroom. This is the opportunity to present evidence and question witnesses, including the ticketing officer. Most people represent themselves, since the price of an attorney is typically more than the fine.
At 11 a.m., a court clerk asks everyone to stand, raise their right hand and swear to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth under penalty of perjury."
McNatt enters and calls the first case, with the defendant and a police officer taking their seats behind respective tables.
The officer gives his name, employer and job title, then gives a brief synopsis of why he wrote the defendant a ticket. Then it's the defendant's turn to give evidence.
On a recent May morning, an elderly man stood slowly, using a cane to support himself. His trial on a speeding ticket had already been postponed once because a California Highway Patrol officer couldn't be there. That happened again, so McNatt dismissed the case.
People sometimes choose to take their tickets to trial with the hope that an officer won't show up in court. The police agency can ask in advance for the case to be reset due to the officer's schedule.
Lodi police officers almost always show up in court. A number of years ago, prosecutors weren't happy when officers weren't appearing, said Lodi Police Lt. Chris Piombo, so now the officer's supervisor gets reprimanded for any court no-shows.
If officers aren't on duty — most commonly because they work the graveyard shift — they get paid overtime to appear in court.
On the flip side, a trial can continue without the defendant present, as happened the same day in court. The man, accused of speeding 110 mph on Highway 99 and not having insurance, had already reset his court date once, so McNatt continued without him after noting that the man knew about the date.
A CHP officer testified, and McNatt found the man guilty, fining him $918.
Excuses for traffic violations run the gamut. Most officers say they've heard everything. McNatt even said that when he worked on patrol, he heard so many excuses that he would give a driver a break if they actually had an original, legitimate excuse.
Most argue that the officer is lying, or just deny that they committed the violation.
One man, accused of traveling 75 mph in a 55-mph zone on Clements Road, took his case to trial. A CHP officer testified that he had 19 years of experience and was cruising through the area near Stampede Road when he saw a red pick-up speeding toward him.
The officer's radar hadn't been turned on, but with a flip of the switch he had it activated and clocked it at 75 mph. He testified that he'd tested the radar unit when starting his shift, and gave the judge the numbers assigned to both his radar unit and his patrol car.
The driver denied speeding. The officer added that he'd noticed a radar detector in the man's truck when he pulled it over.
That, according to officers, is something drivers assume is foolproof. However, officers often leave their radar detectors turned off until they see a car they believe is speeding, then flip the switch. By then it's too late to slow down.
McNatt found the man guilty and fined him $173.
One time, Lodi Police Detective Eric Bradley recalled going to testify in a traffic trial for a man he'd cited for unsafe backing, because the man hit a parked car. Bradley told the judge what had happened, and the man said that's exactly what happened.
The judge asked why the man was in court, to which the man replied: "I just don't see how it can be unsafe backing."
The judge fined him, too, Bradley said.
Where the money goes
Traffic fines are somewhat flexible, since the judge has final say. McNatt did deny a man's written request to dismiss his case because he "couldn't afford the ticket."
But sometimes people show up in court, own up to their mistake and ask for some leniency.
One woman was cited for loaning a vehicle to an unlicensed driver and for failing to appear in court. "I was trying to do the right thing," the teary-eyed woman told McNatt, explaining that she was trying to get to the hospital.
McNatt offered to reduce the fine from $445 to $225 if she resolved the case that day. She agreed.
As for the fines themselves, the money is split a variety of ways.
Most ticket money goes to the state for funds dedicated to things like courthouse construction and DNA work.
For instance, the standard fine for speeding more than 10 mph over the speed limit is $203. Of that amount, $27.55 goes to the city of Lodi's general fund, if the ticket was issued by Lodi police officers. If the ticket was issued by the CHP or a Sheriff's deputy, that money goes to the county.
A red light violation can result in a $427 fine.
Those fees don't count traffic school — if the driver hasn't completed traffic school in the past 18 months, the program may be completed in order to keep the ticket off the driving record and avoid insurance hikes.
That's an additional $51 fee to the court for processing, as well as the school's fee, which average roughly $30. Traffic school takes several hours to complete online, or even longer in a classroom.