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  1. kwflatbed

    kwflatbed Subscribing Member MC1+MC2 +MC3 109K+Poster

    Tell it to the ... magistrate

    Traffic tickets are routinely dismissed


    By Keith O'Brien

    Globe Staff / February 7, 2009

    One by one, they come before the clerk magistrate to tell their stories. A man in a tie explains that he had just learned his mother was diagnosed with cancer. He was distracted. That's why he was speeding. And he's found not responsible.

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    A 24-year-old hairdresser, cited for allegedly driving 85 miles per hour in a 45 miles-per-hour zone and driving to endanger, tells the magistrate that she's sorry, and gets one of her citations dismissed and her $1,000 fine cut in half.
    And nearly everyone else who appeals their citations gets some sort of break. Of the two dozen drivers who appeared on this recent morning at the central division of the Boston Municipal Court downtown, almost everyone had their cases dismissed or their fines reduced.
    "Good luck," Michelle Heath whispered to another motorist moments after her speeding ticket was dismissed. And certainly a bit of luck helps. But when beating a speeding ticket, there's often something that helps even more: just showing up.
    "You'll have people ranting and raving and screaming and yelling. That happens. This is their opportunity to be heard," said Daniel Hogan, the clerk magistrate at Boston's central division. "But our mantra here is: You don't engage in that type of behavior. Treat people like you'd want to be treated. And if you can find in favor of the citizen, find in favor of the citizen."
    The state doesn't track exactly what happens in these appeals - how many people are found not responsible, how many get reduced fines, how many tickets are upheld. But overall, according to state numbers, roughly 70 percent of people who receive speeding tickets end up paying them - about a third of them are able to get off. Those cited for failing to stop at stop signs or traffic lights are even more likely to have their citations dismissed. Nearly 40 percent of people cited with that infraction got off in 2007.
    What's clear from observing clerk magistrate hearings is that a polite, contrite demeanor - along with a well-stated case - can take you far. Across the Commonwealth, clerk magistrates, working with the police officer's citation, the motorist's story, and very little else, routinely overturn police citations or slash the fines that motorists have incurred.
    "I was very surprised," said Heath, a marketing executive at a downtown start-up company. "Everybody was like, 'Don't even waste your time. They'll never let you off.' "
    But when Heath went before the first assistant clerk magistrate, Mark J. Concannon, Tuesday to explain why she could not have been speeding on the Massachusetts Turnpike in November, Concannon, to Heath's delight, was willing to consider the possibility that she was right.
    "My defense was, the police officer didn't know who he was clocking," Heath said. "He pulled two people over. He didn't know who he tagged. And my belief is he mistook me for the other car."
    Concannon listened. And, with a flick of his pen, he rendered his decision.
    "Not responsible."
    Here's how the process works: Drivers cited for speeding and other civil infractions have a right to appeal to clerk magistrates, court officials who handle small claims cases, among other duties.
    The magistrate hearings - in 2007, there were more than 277,000 statewide - generally have something of an informal feel. Many aren't held in courtrooms. The citing officers typically do not attend - nor do they have to. Instead, the police department is represented by an officer, who in most cases does little more than read the driver's offense. Then it's up to the motorist to persuade the magistrate to dismiss the violation - a decision that may be then appealed to a judge.
    Hearings usually last a couple of minutes, sometimes only seconds. In Boston this week, Michael Shea's violation was dismissed because police sent the wrong citation to his hearing. And several times in Quincy District Court this week, First Assistant Clerk Magistrate Robert Bloom found drivers not responsible for lane violations before they had uttered a word in their defense. Bloom said he routinely dismisses such cases if the citation doesn't elaborate on the incident.
    "You win," he told one driver cited for an alleged red light violation during one stretch where Bloom found 13 of 15 people not responsible. But moments later, when another driver argued that it wasn't possible that he was speeding, Bloom shot him down. "Sure, it's possible. Why not?" he said, and upheld the citation.
    Such exchanges can make the hearings feel arbitrary at times. Two magistrates looking at similar violations may come to different conclusions. But Hogan said it's not arbitrary at all. It's experienced people making judgment calls, he said, and State Police and Boston police officials say they have faith in the process.
    "I think the system is working," said Superintendent Daniel Linskey of the Boston Police Department. "We have a role and a function. We see violations and we write violations that we think are necessary. A person has a right to appeal that. They can go to a clerk magistrate and the clerk's job is to determine whether they're responsible."
    Even when violations are dismissed, Linskey said, he believes motorists are learning a lesson: Break the law and you'll have to take a half-day off work to appeal. That alone, he said, will make people rethink how they drive.
    In Quincy this week, nurse Allison Porter, cited for an alleged red light violation, argued that the police officer said her wheels had just slightly crossed the solid white line, but there was no way he could have seen that from where he was sitting.
    Decision: Not responsible.
    "I've never challenged a ticket before," Porter said. "But this particular time, I just thought it was ridiculous."
    In Boston this week, Marlborough software consultant Hariprasad Nayak, cited for allegedly driving 61 miles per hour in a 45 miles-per-hour zone in the Ted Williams Tunnel, said he was only speeding to get out of the way of a tailgating sport utility vehicle and that, anyway, his little Toyota, loaded down with his wife's luggage, probably wasn't going that fast.
    Decision: Not responsible.
    "Maybe I was going over 45," he said after the hearing. "But I definitely wasn't going 61."
    And then, in Dedham, there was Sharon Christie, a preschool teacher and mother of three. In December, Christie was driving through a Norwood intersection when she was hit by another car. At the hospital - Christie had minor injuries - the police officer cited her for allegedly failing to stop at a stop sign. But she explained, "I know I stopped."
    Sal Paterna, the Dedham District Court clerk magistrate, listened, asking about the incident and her driving history. Christie answered, respectful but firm, and Paterna made his decision.
    "Ma'am," he said, "I'm going to give you a break. I believe you."

    Not responsible.
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