Thursday, January 22, 2015

Guilty Until Proven Innocent: My Journey to Fight a Seat Belt Ticket

I absolutely agree with this law!  So please don't take this post as though I don't.  I especially agree with any child safety seat laws since little ones depend on us to help them be safe.  

I am posting this experience because I learned a lot about the process that might be helpful to others.  This is NOT for the person who was rightfully ticketed for not wearing their seat belt.  This is for someone who was wearing their settle but received a ticket for not.  That was my situation!  

I have heard of, and witnessed, pushes that local and state police have done to enforce laws.  You know, the police officers out to specifically look for people, in moving vehicles, not wearing their seat belt.  In June of 2014 I was a "victim" of this kind of push.  Here's my story:

June 10, 2014:  I was driving on a major highway in my area.  My kids and I were heading home from visiting my grandma.  As I started to get closer to the downtown area, I noticed a state police trooper on a motorcycle.  He was pulled of to the side of the highway with the police lights on.  There wasn't another vehicle or person around so I assumed he had just finished pulling someone over.  Mental note to myself:  take extra caution to make sure I am not going over the speed limit.

Not the police officer that pulled me over.

A couple of exits later I noticed the same police officer was now directly behind me.  The traffic was very congested and steadily going 70 MPH (the speed limit).  I was in the "fast lane" in an area that just merged with another highway.  Once I was clear of the merging traffic, I decided to move a lane over.  That way the police officer could move on to whatever his next "catch" would be.  What happened next was pretty strange to me.  When the police officer pulled up beside me he looked directly into my car.  This seemed like a very long look which made me wonder what I was doing wrong.  I knew that I was not speeding so I started to wonder if maybe I wasn't holding my steering wheel correctly.  I know that drivers training taught us to hold it at 10 and 2 but is that a law?  I had my left hand at 1 and my right hand was on my water bottle....  So, I moved my hands to 10 and 2 - just as he turned his lights on and pulled behind me.  Very confused, I pulled over at the next safe spot on the highway.

Keep in mind - I am the queen of carpooling kiddos around.  And I make a point to NEVER "break the law".  I want parents to know that their children are safe with me.  AND - my kiddos mean the world to me so I would never do anything to harm them or make them feel like breaking the law is okay.

So, why was I pulled over?  For not wearing a seat belt!  I was wearing my seat belt so the thought of that being the reason the officer was looking in my car NEVER even came to my mind.  Otherwise I would have made sure he clearly saw my seat belt strap when he was looking in my car.  He could see that my kids were buckled and in the appropriate seating for their age/size.  I had my seat belt on when he came to my passenger side window.  But he believed that he saw me driving without my seat belt on and nothing was going to change his mind.  Heck - he had already started writing a ticket before he even walked up to my car...

I'm stubborn when it comes to people saying I did something wrong when I did not!  My options were to pay the $65 fee or to call in to schedule an informal hearing to fight the ticket.  So, I'm of course going to fight this!  I had no idea what to expect - which is why I am blogging about it to hopefully help others.  

I called every day for 5 days before my ticket arrived at the local police station.  I was told that it is usually much quicker but a motorcycle officer has to hand write their tickets versus using a computer like those in cars.  I really couldn't read much of the ticket at all due to poor handwriting.  The office staff was also unable to read the ticket so I had to give them my complete information over the phone.  It kind of makes me wonder what would have happened to if I wouldn't have called...  But - I always do the right thing so just ignoring the ticket wouldn't have been an option for me.  I was told that they would schedule an informal hearing for me.  It would be on a Thursday and I had to come at that day/time - there is no option to reschedule.  I would be getting the notice and date in the mail once they scheduled it.  I was worried because we were getting ready to head out of state on a 2 week road trip!  But, the kind lady that I spoke to told me that they were currently scheduling hearings 3 weeks out.  That would mean that my hearing should be right after my return.  

We arrived home from our trip on a Sunday and our collection of mail was delivered on Monday.  There was no notice of my hearing for that Thursday!  So, I called to check on the status.  I was told that they had an overwhelming increase in cases and were backed up.  They hadn't even scheduled my hearing yet!  

August 14, 2014:  Finally the day of my informal hearing!  I had been struggling this whole time to think of a way to prove that I was wearing my seat belt.  How do you do this when it is he said/she said??  There is no video, pictures, witnesses (out side of my children who I was not going to pull into this)...  So, I went into this knowing that I was innocent, that I have no past record of not wearing my seat belt, and that the conditions were acceptable for the officer to maybe think that he saw my seat belt off - but it wasn't what he actually saw.  What do I mean by that?  He was driving 70 miles per hour, in congested traffic, on a motor cycle, on a very bright sunny day, looking through my reflective glass window, with a helmet and sunglasses on.  I had on a baggy shirt and my left had was at 1 (blocking visibility of most of my seat belt).  There was a lot of room for error!

I had no idea what to expect but "informal hearing" to me meant we were probably going to sit in a room/office, with a desk or table, and talk through what happened.  That's IF the officer showed up.  My research alluded to the ticket being dismissed if the officer did not show.  So, I arrived at the police department and checked in.  I noticed that there was a state police motorcycle in the parking lot but I did not really know what the trooper looked like (he had on a helmet and sunglasses when he pulled me over).  I was sitting in a waiting area full of people.  There was a list taped to the office window that had all the names of people coming in that day and what their case concerned.  I was shocked that they could do something like that where everyone could see it!  But, I knew quickly that I was in a room full of people that are fighting retail fraud, drug possession, theft....  Most of them had lawyers with them. 

My informal hearing was scheduled for 3:00 pm and at about 3:45 a frustrated police officer (who had been in hating with the judge) came in to the room asking me if I was "Ann".  Then he asked what I was there for.  When I said that I was there because of a seat belt ticket he said, in an annoyed tone, "That's me.  Come on in."  What a great way to start this process....

The informal hearing was NOT in an office or meeting room.  It was in a court room.  I had to sit at the defendants table and be sworn in.  How unexpected and intimidating.  I was the only one in the room that has never done this before.  I know that the judge and the officer are right in their normal work environment.  Me - I was totally taken aback!  It was clear to me that the office and the judge were familiar with each other.  Now that I knew who they were - I had seen them chatting with each other many times over my long wait before being called in....  The police officer was asked to give "his side of the story".  Then I was asked to respond.  I started with bringing up my past history of NO tickets.  But, I was quickly shot down with that.  Apparently in a situation like this your past good record has nothing to do with the charge in question.  No wonder why I hear so much about people getting multiple drunk driving tickets and still not getting their license taken away!!!  

Then it truly became a case of "he said, she said" and the judge decided that the police office was right - I was not wearing my seat belt!  I was then told that I had an option to appeal his decision.  I would have to pay $70 (cash - they charge a fee for credit or check) for a bond to be held until my next court date.  Sixty-five dollars was for the ticket and $5 was the fee for the appeal.  Heck yes I was going to appeal!  I had really hoped for all of this to be over but I wasn't willing to agree that I was guilty for something that I knew I was not.  

September 9, 2014:  the date of my appeal.  At the end of the first hearing the officer mentioned that he saw my seat belt buckle which led him to know that I did not have my seat belt on.  I have no idea if he really even remembered my specific case but it had me think.  Why would he have thought that my seat belt buckle was up where he could see it through my window?  Keep in mind, it was a sunny day, my reflective window, going 70 miles per hour in congested traffic, on a motorcycle with a helmet and sunglasses on.  So, I looked further at my car versus a few other car models.  This is when I discovered something that might actually help me prove that a mistake could have been made (and in this case - it was)! See my pictures below:
This is the section between my door and the rear door with my seat belt on.
The other cars that I examined do not have that chunky piece at the base of where the seat belt is pulled out.
Could this be what he thought was my seat belt buckle?

When my seat belt is not on the driver the buckle lays way below the window
in an area that the officer wouldn't have been able to see it.

Can you see the chunky section that pulls out into a more visible area when I have my seat belt on?

No see how hard everything is to see when you add some distractions?
Sun blur/glare and speed would be major distractions!
Don't forget the helmet and sunglasses.

Another angle since I don't know how high the officer would have been on his motorcycle.

So, I arrived at my appeal with pictures in hand and ready for the same scenario as before - except a different judge.  The check-in and waiting room were all the same - lots of people were there for all kinds of reasons.  This time there was also a person from the prosecuting attorneys office pulling people into a room to work on plea agreements.  I knew just about everything that was going on in that room because they left the door open during all their meetings.  Then, as a surprise, the prosecuting attorney came out of the office and called my name.  I was very confused since I was expecting the same situation that I had done the last time.  Yet, another reason why I wanted to do this blog post as I feel it is important for people to have a better idea of the process.  I was told nothing!  

I went into the office where I started showing the attorney my pictures and explaining why a mistake was made.  The entire time she was looking through my paperwork.  Her response:  "I can see that you  are not interested in a plea."  Seriously?!?!  It's not about the money!  I want my record to clearly indicate only the things that I am TRULY guilty of.  Why would I plea to say that I wasn't wearing my seat belt when I have spent all this time trying to prove that I didn't?!?!  What she said next was very frustrating.  Apparently they had a mistake on my paperwork.  The paperwork at her office indicated that I was in for lack of proof of insurance - not a seat belt ticket.  At this point, the only option was to reschedule and come back again when the paperwork was corrected!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

September 23, 2014:  I'm back again and hoping that the paperwork is correct this time!  It was.  But this time I am in the office with the prosecuting attorney AND the state trooper.  At this point I am wondering if my ticket would have been dismissed last time if the paperwork would have been correct.  You know, because the trooper wasn't there....  I will never know for sure.  Next, I was told that if I do not take the plea (pay the ticket) that I could be charged additional fees if my appeal is not accepted.  Additional fees???  I promised my husband that I wouldn't let this go any further if it meant spending more money.  So, what kind of "additional fees" are they talking about?  No one had an answer....  So, I continue on into the court room to fight my ticket (and possibly pay more money in the long run) OR I say that I am "guilty" and just end it now (losing the $70 I have already paid).  This was very frustrating!  

The state trooper was in a better mood and didn't seem to understand why I would want to fight an "administrative fee" - at least that is what he called my ticket.  I was concerned that this would be on my record and he indicated that it would not be - that if someone looked up my record that they would never see that I was ticketed for not wearing my seat belt.  Aside from my feelings about being wrongly accused - I was most worried about people (police officers that I know) thinking that I am an "unsafe driver"!  The trooper assured me that this was not possible.  Whatever - I didn't not want to take my chances in this "he said/she said" case and end up paying more money!  So, I plead GUILTY!  I still had to go into the court room (which was even more official this time).  I had to say that I was guilty - one of the hardest things I have ever done since I WAS NOT GUILTY!  I found in insane that they swear me in to be truthful but I have to lie to say that I was guilty...  I very rarely cry but when I do it is usually because I am so angry.  That was the case this day.  I was trying to not show my emotions but I was so upset with having to say "guilty" to a judge when I was not...  The judge even made a comment at one point that it wasn't like I was up for felony charges.  Hey - I don't know what all he faces in a day but, for me, it might as well been felony charges!  I WAS NOT GUILTY.  I signed the proper paperwork and released my $70 to go toward my ticket.  Almost 4 months after I received the ticket, 3 trips to the court house, many hours taken from my days, all the emotional drain, and I not only paid the ticket but I paid $5 more!  I was done....


My children:  Both of my kiddos were with my when I was pulled over.  The only other time that they were in a situation like this was when my husband was pulled over for speeding during a vacation.  In that case, the police officer was very nice and did not give him a ticket.  He also told my husband that the ticket would have been $210 and that he should go spend that money on our kids for a fun night out.  We often pick on my husband for his "bad driving" and that time that he was pulled over.  

When I was pulled over it was a different story.  My kiddos knew that I was wearing my seat belt so they didn't know why the police officer wouldn't believe me.  I thought very carefully about what I wanted my kids to think about this situation.  I want them to feel like they can trust police officers.  And my son has a friend whose dad is a police officer who is very involved in their school.  I didn't want this situation to take away from that.   

So, we talked about how mistakes can happen.  We also talked about the process of appealing a ticket (that you both go to a judge and tell your side of the story - then the judge decides who he believes).  They, of course, were concerned about the judge not believing me.  Thankfully, they have not asked how it eventually all turned out.  I want them to have faith in the justice system....

My advice to anyone facing this in the future?  If you appeal - make sure you have your all your "evidence" with you the first time!

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