The state of New York decriminalized minor traffic offenses in 1934 with the creation of the ‘civil traffic infraction’. New York blazed the legal path that other states quickly followed in decriminalizing minor traffic offense by also adopting the civil traffic infraction.
The creation of the civil traffic infraction allowed the courts to do away with costly jury trials for traffic tickets. The courts reasoned that jury trials were not necessary because the infraction was a ‘civil offense’ carrying only a ‘small’ civil fine as a possible penalty and no possibility of jail time.
The next causality of the civil infraction was the prosecutor. Lawyers are expensive and therefore, many states decided that the lawyer/prosecutor was not needed for civil traffic infraction cases — the cop could be the prosecutor. Some other states, such as California, correctly legally rationalized that the cop could not be the prosecutor (People v. Marcroft (1992) 6 Cal.App.4th). However, a California court also (People v. Carlucci , 23 Cal.3d 249) concocted the irrational decision that no prosecutor was necessary to conduct a civil traffic trial.
The decision to make the officer the prosecutor presents a great constitutional problem for traffic courts. Justice and the Constitution demands that courts are to be fair and impartial — not favoring one side over the other. The court, by allowing the state to be represented by a non-attorney (the cop), is favoring the state over the defendant. If the defendant elects to be represented in traffic court, the court demands that the defendant go out and hire a Bar attorney at their expense.. Such treatment of the defendant by the court is indisputably biased and blatantly unfair treatment and is solid grounds for dismissal of the defendant’s traffic case.
Civil traffic cases where there is no prosecutor present in the court are treated by traffic courts much like a small claims court action. In small claims courts both sides simply tell their stories to the judge and are allowed to cross examine one another under oath and the judge is allowed to ask questions of both sides.
Traffic courts treat the traffic court hearing like a small claims court only to the degree that it serves their purpose (collection of revenue). Where it does not serve the court’s purpose (threat of loss of revenue), they treat traffic court cases like a different legal animal altogether. For instance, in a civil small claims court the plaintiff must show up at the time of trial, or the case is dismissed. However, in a traffic trial where there is no prosecutor, the plaintiff (the state or the People) never shows up and never does the court dismiss the case.
Who is present in court to legally uphold the claim of the state or the People against the defendant when there is no prosecutor? The judge? The Constitution requires the judge to remain fair and impartial. How about the cop? For the reasons explained already, the cop cannot be the prosecutor and in regards to California, an appeals court in the Marcroft case ruled that the cop is the witness, no more, no less.
When there is no prosecutor, there is no one present in court who can legally uphold the claim of the state or the People against the defendant. In this instance, the state or the People (the plaintiff) have legally abandoned their claim against the defendant in the exact manner as a plaintiff in any other civil court proceeding except traffic.
Traffic courts are not concerned with justice or protecting people’s rights under the Constitution, but maximizing the collection of revenue is the traffic court’s real and true agenda. Lest anyone be inclined to believe otherwise, try challenging a traffic court judge sometime by moving to dismiss your traffic case because the state or the People have abandoned their claim against you by not having a prosecutor in court. Watch as the judge’s temperament and demeanor instantly change. The judge will be quick to remind you that the state grants the court the right to try a civil traffic case absent a prosecutor. If that doesn’t immediately shut you up, then the judge will invoke a judicially intimidating tone of voice accompanied by some strong facial expressions, as the judge instructs you to move on to something else.
The abandonment of the state’s or the People’s claim for lack of prosecution is a raw nerve that traffic court judges do not want exposed in open court. Such a claim exposes to everyone the fraud of the court and the court’s mere pretense at justice.
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