Traffic court in Alhambra is busy — but that does not mean you'll get off easy

An earlier version of this article appeared in Neon Tommy: USC Annenberg Digital News. It was part of a series on L.A. County Traffic Court.

By Mary Beth Barker, USC student

At 8:30 a.m. the Alhambra traffic courtroom was full of people waiting to have their 15 seconds of fame. Most sit low in the folding chairs with their heads in their palm or hunch intently over textbooks. A few others dozed off before the bailiff comes over to rouse them. By the time roll is called for trials at 9:15, the courtroom is already 45 minutes behind and pro-tem Judge David Hillier has a full schedule.

The Alhambra Courthouse has seen a recent rise in the number of people with traffic violations pleading not guilty and opting for a later trial date. Some push back their sentencing to find the time to come up with the money to pay for their ticket. Others genuinely think their case is worth arguing.

Bailiff George Anguiano said generally people who come to traffic court plead not guilty to try to get out of the ticket, innocent or not. "More people are coming to see if the officers won’t show up. If they are lucky, the officer doesn’t show, the person’s not guilty plea stands,” Anguiano said.

On a Wednesday this spring, all 20 spots for trials were filled, with another 50 arraignments scheduled to take place directly after. No one got lucky. Of the 20 trials scheduled, only six people still argued their case. One was a failure to appear and the rest quickly changed their plea to guilty or no contest and asked for traffic school or community service.

“You see how quickly they change from not guilty to traffic school? That’s when you know they are just trying to work the system,” said Officer Michael Muñoz, who came to the courthouse to defend a ticket he gave out last year.

Bicha Hong was one of the six who still pleaded not guilty. She was cited last December for driving in the rain without her headlights on. It was her 10th violation. After an extension and failing to appear for an earlier court date, she came Wednesday to clear up the matter before it was handed over to collections. The officer who issued the ticket stood before the court and explained what happened. Hong’s defense was simple.

“I have no work. I have two kids. I have nothing [to pay] for this.”

Hillier asked if she had anything to add concerning the ticket. She shook her head and was found guilty and given the appropriate fine. She nodded and left the courtroom in tears. Others were not willing to take their sentencing so quietly.

Kem Setoyan argued that his ticket was based on a faulty LIDAR gun and so his ticket should be thrown out. The officer presented the evidence from the LIDAR gun and paper work that showed it had recently been calibrated. The judge found Setoyan guilty. Setoyan argued with the judge and eventually stormed out shouting, “[The officer] stood there and lied in front of the court, but God will get him. He’s the ultimate judge.”

Setoyan was the only one adamant that the officer in question was incorrect in issuing a ticket. Most people admitted they had committed an infraction but asked that their “honest mistake” be forgotten “just this once.” The judge wasn’t having it. Every person who contested his or her case was still found guilty. But that didn’t convince everyone in the following arraignments to plead guilty right away.

Out of 50 arraignments that morning, six didn’t show and 23 said they were not guilty and given a later court date. Those 23 have the same wish that didn’t come true for anyone on Wednesday – that their officer doesn’t show up.

Kim Xiong came to the courthouse for her arraignment and pleaded not guilty. In two weeks, she will return to the courthouse to settle the matter. If the officer doesn’t show up, her not guilty plea will be granted and she will have escaped the inconvenient baggage of traffic court: fines, extra court fees, traffic school and community service.

“I shouldn’t have gotten the ticket in the first place. He probably writes so many that he won’t even show up for mine [trial].”

And if he does?

“Then I guess I just ask for traffic school.”

And her request would be granted. But Jex Rowland, the supervisor of police personnel at the Alhambra Courthouse, said it’s unlikely she’ll get off entirely. Police officers aren’t required to show up for court dates, but they are “strongly encouraged” by their superior officers according to Rowland.

The officers show up in uniform, sit in rows together at the front of the courtroom and wait until their case is called. Once their case is over they head back to their regular patrol. More trials means more time spent waiting in a courtroom instead of policing the streets and, as the case was Wednesday, the allotted half-hour trial time is rarely enough to see every case, meaning further delays.

The extra time spent on trials doesn’t seem to be beneficial for any party involved. Cops are pulled off patrols, the judge is overloaded with cases, and the ticket-holders are still found guilty.

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