Stories from the Bench: Mercy Cases

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While New York State traffic court judges can be tough, we are all human. What most people don’t realize is that while police officers, prosecutors and judges all have a job to do, they also have a significant amount of discretion.  Some use it more liberally than others. For example some judges have the reputation of being firm but fair. Others might seem to be “all over the place” and be more prone to making what may seem to be arbitrary rulings. Still others might be referred to as “hanging judges” meaning they’d give you the death penalty for a traffic ticket if they could!

Speaking for myself, there were times when I would look for a reason to just dismiss a case. It could be that the driver had a sympathetic story, or that I just didn’t want to go through a lengthy trial. Most judges have stories of what can be called “mercy cases.” These could result in a dismissal of charges, reduction of fine, or being flexible in allowing an adjournment.

Here are some stories of times that I gave a driver a break.

Driver in the Hot Seat

I had a case involving a woman challenging a seat belt ticket. The police officer, in this case, had a nasty demeanor and seemed to be in a bad mood. Meanwhile, the woman was polite and respectful (which you should always be in court). I asked what her defense was.

She replied, “I’m not arguing that I wasn’t wearing a seat belt. In fact, I don’t even remember if I was or not. The fact is I was nine months pregnant with triplets at the time. Plus, it was a very hot day and the seat belt would have been very uncomfortable.”

She had birth certificates to prove that she had, in fact, given birth not long after the traffic stop. However, only a medical professional can testify that not wearing a seat belt would be justifiable for a pregnant woman, so I couldn’t dismiss it on those grounds. But I asked the officer if he had noticed she had a large belly. He scoffed back, “Maybe. So, what?”

His uncertainty in the matter and the fact that the pregnancy was not noted on the ticket said to me that there was not clear and convincing evidence of the violation. So, I dismissed it on those grounds.

Upon hearing this, the officer commented, “Remind me the next time I’m swollen that I don’t have to wear my seat belt.” To this, I replied, “I doubt you will ever be pregnant, but you could be swollen in other areas.”

Taking Care of Grandma

As a judge, if the facts show the person is guilty of the infraction, there is no room to acquit. However, it is sometimes possible to mitigate the fine to the lowest possible amount. I did this once for a case involving a minor speeding offense. A driver challenging a ticket for going 10mph over the limit admitted he was speeding. Normally this is never a good idea, but then he said, “I was taking my grandmother to the doctor. We were running late and she was upset. Plus, wearing the seat belt makes her uncomfortable so I didn’t want her to suffer more than she had to.”

Right off the bat, he admits he’s guilty so I can’t dismiss the charges. However, I have sympathy for grandmothers. I had a grandmother and I appreciate that his concern was genuine. Besides, it was only 10mph over the limit. So, while I couldn’t eliminate the points, I did reduce the fine to $45, the lowest amount allowable.

This won’t work on all judges. I know a judge who once gave a break to a speeder who was rushing their dying cat to the veterinarian. He was an animal lover. Were I in his shoes, I would have said that human life is more important than animal life.

The Dogs Ate My Seatbelts!

Of course, there are going to be times when no excuse is going to convince a judge to have mercy, especially when it is outrageous. One woman came in with an officer who had ticketed her for not having properly restrained children in the back seat. I asked why her children weren’t buckled up. She said she couldn’t buckle them because the dogs ate the seatbelts. The officer confirmed there were large dogs in the car. I asked if this happened while she was on the road and she said, “No, it was a few days ago.”

Right there she messed up her case. Even if her outrageous explanation were true, she admitted that she would have had time to get them replaced. I ended up giving her six points and a fine. I used the maximum allowable fine. I would have suspended her license but it wasn’t justifiable in this case. A judge has to have what is referred to as “judicial temperament” and show “judicial restraint” – just because we’re prone to get angry like everyone else doesn’t mean we should go overboard.

It’s important to remember that these anecdotes are not meant as a guideline for how to get out of a traffic ticket—every judge’s temperament is different and everyone has good days and bad days. That’s why it’s important to hire a lawyer to help fight a traffic ticket. An experienced attorney will have a better gauge of the judge’s mood and can read cues on the fly to maximize the chance of getting a merciful ruling. Lawyers that already have established rapport with your judge can be even more effective because everyone prefers to deal with friends and usually treats them better than strangers. Lawyers who frequently appear before the same judges again and again will also know which legal arguments that judge is likely to accept.

judge hamsho

Former Judge Deborah Hamsho, Esq. served as Administrative Law Judge and Traffic Adjudications Judge at the Richmond County/Staten Island DMV office from 1995 to 2016. She is a certified mediator and a retired NYS general practitioner. She now lives in the beautiful Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, where she serves her new community, the township of Whitehall, as a mayoral appointee to the Town Board of Ethics.

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This post was written by Deborah Hamsho

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