I got in a car accident last month, and the situation for the accident was so strange to me I wrote a contemporary account of what happened and posted it for documentation purposes. One of the things which struck me as strange about the situation was I was given a ticket for "FAIL TO REDUCE SPEED." I plead not guilty to for this offense as I thought it was nonsense, and today, I became convinced that plea is 100% correct. If you don't want to hear the details, just look at this picture (the stop sign pictured in the image was not there at the time of the accident):



Before I discuss the details of the accident, I want to discuss the peculiarity of the court process in this case. Because this is considered a petty offense, with me receiving a "civil traffic ticket" as opposed to a "criminal traffic ticket," I am not entitled to free representation. The only way I could have a lawyer is to pay for one, which I cannot currently afford to do. This means I am forced to represent myself. This has some unfortunate effects, but the most troubling is the fact I don't have a knowledge of the technical, bureaucratic processes involved in this process.

To demonstrate why this is a problem, the accident was on the night of March 2nd. On that night, I was given a ticket with the stated offense being listed as "FAIL TO REDUCE SPEED." This isn't the legal terminology (I'll get into that in a bit), but the citation lists the section of the law for the offense so I could find the law I was accused of breaking. The ticket came with instructions saying I should mail it in and either plead guilty (sending a money order for the fine) or send it in and plead not guilty. I choose to do the latter.

Nothing further happened until April 2nd, when a notice to appear was mailed to me. I received it on April 4th. This notice contained no information as to what I was supposed or allowed to do beyond showing up at a courthouse this Wednesday for a trial that'd begin at 11 AM. I've been provided no further information. I wasn't told what evidence exists for the charge, who will be testifying against me, what the process for the trial will be, nothing. I contacted both the prosecutor's office and the court (in person for the latter), but they provided no information. The prosecutor's office told me they wouldn't provide any information at all without a court order.

I asked about the possibility of getting a court order. I was told to get one, I would need to file a motion to get the judge to compel discovery, weeks in advance. Given I was informed of the trial date only two weeks in advance, it is not clear to me when I would have had to file such a motion. Seeing as I had no court appearances or communication with anyone from the court/prosecutor's office, it's difficult to imagine how I would know such an obtuse process would be needed. I haven't even been informed what evidence will be presented or what witnesses will testify. I'm expected to go into trial without having the slightest indication as to what the trial will consist of, beyond the ticket I was given, because I failed to file a motion to compel discovery for evidence I've never been told exists.

Perhaps a lawyer would know how to navigate such an obtuse process. Not being able to afford a lawyer, I do not. I haven't the slightest idea what evidence will be presented at my trial, nor who will testify at it (aside from the citing officer, I presume). That's not the only information being withheld though. The refusal to provide information without a court order covers all information aside from when and where I should appear for my trial (and the law cited). That includes basic information like the date of the incident, the location of the incident and even the name of the officer who issued the ticket. It seems Kafkaesque.

The cited offense only exacerbates that impression. The picture at the start of this post shows the intersection where the accident happened. As it shows, continuing in a straight line through the intersection would get in a wreck. That's what happened to me. According to the cited offense, I was traveling too fast, and that's why I got in an accident. I disagree. I say I got in the accident because the road's design is insane. As a person on Twitter put it:

Now, in the picture at the start of this post, there is a stop sign clearly visible. Underneath that stop sign is a yellow rectangular box which says cross traffic does not stop. Neither sign was there when my accident happened. At the time of my accident, a different stop sign was there, but that sign was rotated ~45 degrees to face the other road. When talking to the officer who issued my ticket, I explained to him I had seen the stop sign but, due to it being rotated away from the road I was on, I believed it was intended for the other road. He said he would try to talk to people to get it fixed. The old, poorly situated stop sign was removed (addressing my concern about it facing the wrong direction) and the rectangular box makes it clear the other road was not supposed to stop. Within a month and a half of me expressing my concerns about the signage at this intersection being inadequate, and ultimately responsible for my accident, the signage underwent a major upgrade, including a third sign:

1,000+ feet before the intersection. If any of this signage had been there at the time of my accident, there would have been no accident. My accident did not happen because I was traveling especially fast. The accident happened because I failed to stop at an intersection which was supposed to be clearly marked by a stop sign. Now, perhaps one might think I deserve a ticket for running a stop sign. That's not what I was given a ticket for though. Presumably, this is because the officer recognized the signage at the intersection at the time of the accident was woefully inadequate. Why then was I given a ticket for traveling too fast? Note, this is the text of the law cited:

(a) No vehicle may be driven upon any highway of this State at a speed which is greater than is reasonable and proper with regard to traffic conditions and the use of the highway, or endangers the safety of any person or property. The fact that the speed of a vehicle does not exceed the applicable maximum speed limit does not relieve the driver from the duty to decrease speed when approaching and crossing an intersection, approaching and going around a curve, when approaching a hill crest, when traveling upon any narrow or winding roadway, or when special hazard exists with respect to pedestrians or other traffic or by reason of weather or highway conditions. Speed must be decreased as may be necessary to avoid colliding with any person or vehicle on or entering the highway in compliance with legal requirements and the duty of all persons to use due care.

There are two possible ways one can violate this. First, one can travel at a speed which "endangers the safety of any person or property." The fact I failed to stop before going into the ditch does nothing to indicate I was putting other people on the road in danger. This means my "FAIL TO REDUCE SPEED" must apply to the other condition, that I traveled "at a speed which is greater than is reasonable and proper with regard to traffic conditions." But again, what speed could be safe to travel through this intersection? More importantly, what condition of the road indicated I needed to slow enough to avoid this accident?

I swear I had some point or plan for this post. I've forgotten it by now. This is all too weird for me. I'm also getting annoyed at the absurdity of the situation. I think I'll just end the post now, with a couple more images I took for good measure. I made sure to include one with a vehicle in the lane I was traveling on prior to the accident to show how things line up. Sorry for the lackluster ending to the post:

5 comments

  1. Here's some unsolicited advice based on my limited observation of traffic court (My wife was cited for excessive speed and had to appear. The court session was basically a scolding and an appeal to drive more carefully. She only had to pay court costs and the ticket was waived with the condition she not be stopped again within the year. BTW, she was doing 55 in 45 mph zone.)

    1. You're presumed guilty, but exceptional circumstances sometimes make a difference.
    2. Judges likes simple answers to questions. Complex explanations are suspicious.
    3. Courteous and respectful behavior is paramount.

    The strength of your argument rests in the unusual road design, lack of a guard rail at the ditch, and the faulty stop sign. If you can honestly say you reduced some speed when you approached the intersection and there was no cross-traffic, then in your best judgement the accident resulted from your unfamiliarity with the misaligned road. The fact that signage has been significantly upgraded reinforces your case. It may not be enough, but it's the best shot.

    Whatever you do, don't complain about court procedures. They've got the system the way they like it and nothing will change their minds. Good luck.

  2. Gary, your impression doesn't seem inaccurate, based on my limited experience. The prosecutor was nice enough, but he didn't even attempt to establish how fast I was driving or how fast I should have been driving. He didn't attempt to establish anything other than the fact I got in the wreck. That's the only evidence he offered, and... he won.

    Under oath, the officer acknowledged he did not attempt to ascertain what speed I had been traveling at. He acknowledged I had told him I saw the stop sign but thought it applied to the other road due to how it was rotated.* He acknowledged the sign was rotated, as I had told him. He acknowledged the fact the stop sign was improperly situated was why he did not issue me a citation for failing to stop at a stop sign. When presented with photographs I had taken, he acknowledged the sign has since been fixed to be situated properly (he said he wasn't aware if it had been, so I showed him the photographs). After this, the prosecution made no attempt to say my behavior regarding the stop sign was inappropriate. The entire case was nothing but, "He got in a wreck, he's guilty." The judge's attitude seemed to be, "Why are you making me go through this?" and he found me guilty.

    There were so many strange things going on I need to take some time to think about them before I try to detail it all. I definitely did not do as good a job as I could have. I kept being thrown off by the procedure not being what I expected. For instance, I had prepared an opening statement but when I was told how the trial would proceed, I was told I don't get an opening statement. That meant I had to immediately jump into the examination of the officer who issued the citation, trying to keep track of his testimony so I could cross-examine him. This led to my line of questions being somewhat muddled, and since there was no break between his testimony and my own, my own testimony was impacted. Additionally, there were oddities like the fact evidence wasn't entered into the record. As in, we simply showed it to people then took it back with us, with there being no permanent record of what was shown or even identification of it (like exhibit numbers/letters)

    My impression is there was never any chance of me winning the trial, but in a bit of good news, the prosecutor did say I did a good job defending myself. Given how completely unprepared I felt, and the fact the court procedures had me completely bewildered, I'm happy about that. (After trial, I told the prosecutor it was bewildering a person could be found guilty with no evidence other than the fact they got in a wreck He didn't dispute the characterization, seeming to accept it by saying, "A lot of people say that.")

    *The officer said the sign was "slightly rotated," which I felt was rather inaccurate. The rotation I witnessed was ~45 degrees, maybe more. But then, the officer also described the road's sudden shift to the left as a "slight jaunt to the left." I followed up on that to clarify he felt a 10+ foot shift to the left was a "slight jaunt," and he said yes. Given that, I didn't bother pursuing what he'd consider to be a "slightly rotated" sign.

  3. In the American courtroom justice happens by accident (no pun intended).

    You didn't get it.

    I hope the penalty wasn't too great.

  4. You should have taken pictures right away that would have shown the stop sign.
    I think you could have asked for a jury trial, though I think the cost risk is too high.

    I tried to defend myself in traffic court, with lots of pictures. The officer didn't show up, which I was led to believe meant an automatic victory, but the judge postponed the case.

    I was once nearly in an accident like this, with a road that curved to the left, followed by a right turn with a traffic light further up. At night it looked like a traffic light up ahead, no idea the road isn't straight.

  5. MikeN:

    You should have taken pictures right away that would have shown the stop sign.

    The fact it was dark prevented me from doing so that night, and the car being totaled meant it was weeks before I was able to drive out to the intersection.

    I think you could have asked for a jury trial, though I think the cost risk is too high.

    Jury trials are (to my understanding) not guaranteed for offenses like this in all states, but I think I was allowed to request one in this state. It certainly couldn't have gone worse than the bench trial did, but I wouldn't be surprised if the judge had given me a greater fee if I lost in front of a jury. He said he felt the prosecution's recommendation was "very generous" so I imagine he'd have taken any excuse he could have.

    I can appeal, and with the fact the judge prevented me from giving an opening statement (which is a clear violation of the law), I might have a chance. I don't know if it's worth the trouble though.

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