This is the final post by a reader of my blog who unfairly received a stop sign ticket last summer. You can review his initial post here where he describes how/why he got the ticket and his initial search to find a way to beat it. His second post detailed his use of the Federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Controls (MUTCD) to develop a strategy to win in court. Today, he relates his actual experience in the courtroom.
I Pleaded “Not Guilty” Because I’m Not Guilty
One of the most valuable parts of the e-book to me was the detailed description of what court would be like. This was very helpful to me in preparing. Therefore, I have included below a detailed description of my court experience, in the hope that it will be helpful to anyone reading this.
I showed up at around 12:15 for my 1:15 case. However, the court area (it was one part of an overall building that had other municipal services there) was closed for lunch from 12 to 1. So I waited in the building’s main waiting area until the court area opened.
I went into the court area waiting room at 1. There was a waiting area that was just a small room with chairs and some admins behind glass. One lady came in to plead not guilty with her citation in hand, so after she talked with the admins and went to leave, I told her about the blog in case it could be helpful to her.
Two other people got called back before me. I presume they pled to some lesser offense because they went back and came out very quickly. Then it was my turn. The cop who pulled me over was there, as well as another cop (as I later learned, the other cop seemed to be somewhat of a legal assistant to the cop who pulled me over). The cops led me through a door from the waiting room into a hallway, where they pointed me into a small little corner. It was weird, since I was sort of boxed into this dark corner, and then the cop who pulled me over started to I guess offer me a deal.
He said something like, “What is it for you, the points?”
I said, “I pleaded not guilty because I am not guilty.”
There was an awkward pause and the officer had a stunned look on his face, and he eventually said something like, “Alright, let’s go in then.”
The Prosecution Makes Its “Case”
The court area was a small room with two tables, each with two chairs at it. The judge had an elevated desk. I took my oath and then the officers sat down. I took a little while to unload all my pictures and papers. I even had my appeal form on the table, so if the judge could see it he would know I was serious about the case.
I got off to a bit of a rocky start with the judge, since I objected to separate the witnesses, i.e. ask that only one cop be in the room at a time. I did this because I originally thought the second cop had been at the traffic stop, since the cop who pulled me over had mentioned something about another cop being in the car. The cops then clarified that only the one cop was testifying, and I realized the second cop was just some sort of legal assistant. Then I objected that the officer was reading off of notes, but it turned out he was only reading off of the citation.
For the rest of the case, the judge I thought was quite reasonable and fair. He was interested in what I had to say, paid good attention, and was patient and nice in how he talked. I was pleasantly surprised at how fair he was.
The officer gave brief basic testimony. He said he’d been sitting on the shoulder “monitoring” the stop sign and saw my vehicle not stop through his side mirror.
My Cross Examination
Then I got to do cross-ex. First, show that the officer’s observation in various ways was unreliable. But second, and this was probably the key to my strategy, get the officer to repeatedly show he doesn’t understand how Title 75 Section 3323 applies to this weird (and poorly signed) intersection.
One highlight of my cross-ex was that I did get him to say there were no obstructions, and then got to show the utility pole in the way. The “legal assistant” cop told him to object that the picture had no time and date, but the judge said it was fine since the point of the picture was to show stuff that is true at any time, i.e. not something time specific like where the sun would be shining.
Then came my testimony. The most important point I wanted to make came from the language of Section 3323. It divides intersections with stop signs into three categories.
- There’s a stop line by the stop sign. In this case you stop at the line.
- There’s no stop line but is a crosswalk. In this case you stop at the crosswalk and then proceed (i.e. implicitly you don’t stop a second time at the stop line).
- There’s no stop line and no crosswalk. In this case you stop as near as you can to the intersecting roadway while still having a good view.
So I had gotten the officer to testify that he had only been looking at whether I stopped by the sign, and to say that was the violation. But then I showed pictures of the intersection to show a crosswalk and no stop line. And I testified that I stopped at the crosswalk, which his testimony had nothing to say about.
I also added in testimony about Section 3111a, in terms of the stop sign v. yield sign issue. As I feared, this part didn’t stick much with the judge. He said this language, specifically I think the wording “consideration should first be given,” meant the state didn’t have to comply with it. In other words, the judge refused to take my side on a “common sense” because there was no violation by the cops of the black and white law.
Judge: The Stop Sign Location Matters
But interestingly, I don’t think the judge applied a guidance v. standards distinction. I think it was just the wording of the rule as I read it in court that caused him to say a yield sign was okay. I say this because he was much more receptive to the location based argument under Section 3111b.
I quoted here from MUTCD 2B.10 saying:
“Where there is a marked crosswalk at the intersection, the STOP sign should be installed in advance of the crosswalk line nearest to the approaching traffic.”
And this argument seemed persuasive to him. He even at one point suggested the troopers notify PENNDOT about the sign placement being off.
After my testimony, the police basically had nothing to say. The only real question they had was something like this from the officer who pulled me over: “What do you for a living? Are you a PENNDOT engineer?” This was especially funny since my car has out of state plates and I had just testified that we were in town from out of state.
The judge said I was not guilty, and to their credit the cops were quite friendly / polite on the way out. The judge said I had done a great job. My family and I drove home and stopped along the way to eat at our favorite restaurant with my brother in law. The check at the restaurant was funny enough about the same as the ticket.
What a wonderful day it was!
The MUTCD Guidelines May Also Matter
For me, the biggest thing I learned was to focus on black and white violations of the law, not “common sense” reasons for why a ticket is ridiculous. And while MUTCD standards violations are black and white violations of the law, don’t limit yourself to that. You can also try to use guidelines violations (especially if their wording is closer to black and white language), and you can go to the actual law you were ticketed under as well.
Knowing the law and showing how the cops didn’t follow it is your best bet — good luck to everyone else out there!