Sunday, June 5, 2011

Swift Justice

State v. Macedo Soares, 2011 VT 56 (mem.)

We’d like to offer a handshake to the defendant who took a $140 speeding ticket all the way to the SCOV.  It’s another one of those cases that law students sit around and daydream about, because after all, “It’s just not fair, man.”  But alas, the SCOV puts the brakes on this creative constitutional challenge, and Vermont’s traffic-court regime will live to see another disgruntled speeder.

What’s all the fuss about?  Defendant was stopped on I-91 driving 80 m.p.h. and received one of Vermont’s chose-your-own-adventure traffic citations.  Defendant either could pay $140, effectively waiving his right to a hearing (called the “waiver amount”) OR he could demand a hearing before the judicial bureau (Vermont’s traffic court) to contest the citation but risk a monetary penalty ranging from $36 to $1,186 plus $50 in court costs.  The fine print notes that the typical penalty upon finding a violation post-hearing is the waiver amount plus the court costs.  At the Grand Royale before the judicial bureau, the $140 plus court costs is exactly what defendant got.  (Oh, and the hearing officer noted that defendant had been stopped for speeding nine times, which might offer some explanation as to what was really going on here.)

Taking another turn at the roulette wheel, defendant headed to “district court” or the “Superior Court, Criminal Division, Caledonia Unit” in today’s newfangled parlance.  No dice.

At the SCOV, defendant brought a potpourri of constitutional challenges with a little evidentiary flourish at the end.  The constitutional challenges can be summed up as: you’re punishing me for demanding my constitutionally required due process hearing, and you’re just trying to force me to admit that I was speeding. 

At the outset of the opinion, the SCOV slows it down.  Because we’re talking about a civil traffic violation—which might jeopardize the privilege to drive, but not the “life and liberty” at stake in a criminal matter—the notion that defendant was “punished” for exercising his right to demand a hearing and not plead guilty doesn’t hold up.  After all, he attempts to support this theory with a case involving the old death penalty clause of the Federal Kidnapping Act.  Quite notably, the chose-your-own-adventure clause on the back of the ticket does not suggest anything like, “If you chose not to pay the waiver amount and you request a hearing, you could be subject to the death penalty if the hearing officer finds that you were speeding.”  The law can’t leave defendants with a Morton’s Fork when it comes to pleading not guilty in criminal matters, but not so in a civil matter such as this one.

What happens next is kind of odd.  First, the SCOV cites the Seventh Circuit for the principle that “being a civil defendant is ‘fundamentally different’ from being a criminal defendant.”  And make what you will of this sentence: “Defendant may have a statutory right to a jury trial with respect to this traffic violation, but he waived that right and has alleged a statutory violation.” 

Now, explain this to us: “If defendant were correct that providing an option of paying a waiver amount violates the constitutional rights of those cited for traffic violations, all persons cited would be required to participate in administrative proceedings regarding minor traffic violations.”  Eh?  “Fortunately, for citizens who are ticketed, such criminal law safeguards are neither legislatively nor constitutionally required with respect to civil traffic violations.”  In other words, folks like defendant are actually lucky that they have less rights than criminal defendants.  They have the “option” of not having a hearing and can just pay the darn thing and save themselves and everyone else the hassle of going to court.  Of course, they’d be even luckier if the legislature gave them the option of demanding a hearing and having the penalty stay the same regardless.

At this point in the opinion we’re waiting for somebody to cite a constitution—any constitution—Vermont or federal—because that’s what we paid to see.  Defendant cites Chapter 1, Article 4 of the Vermont Constitution, which states, “every person ought to obtain right and justice, freely, and without being obliged to purchase it.”  Defendant says that requiring him to pay court costs, filing fees, and the cost of the judicial bureau transcript amounts to a violation of this provision, because he had to “purchase” these things in order to have his day(s) in court.  No, it doesn’t violate the Vermont Constitution, says SCOV, just look at this Seventh Circuit case again…

Errr . . .

Okay, to the SCOV’s credit, it did cite one case interpreting the Vermont Constitution eventually (upholding filing fees in criminal cases).  But in this regard, the opinion is the Rumpelstiltskin of constitutional interpretation.  “Nope, that’s not what the Vermont Constitution means . . . but we’re not going to tell you what it does mean, either.”  Instead we’re left with whatever Easterbrook of the Seventh Circuit had to say about the U.S. Constitution, which clearly does not contain the same provision, and we go along our merry way.  A case about a $140 speeding ticket probably is not the right moment to engage in something as weighty and delicate as interpreting our blessed Vermont Constitution anyway.

As a final take-away for traffic-court practitioners, the SCOV upheld the judicial bureau hearing officer’s decision to admit the results of the LIDAR or “laser radar” system used to confirm that defendant was speeding.  No evidentiary hearing on reliability required.  Defendant’s point might be better received in the future, though, now that the State finds itself in the throws of Datamaster-gate, but we’ll save that for another day. 

Given his penchant for appeals, maybe this isn’t the last we’ll see of this defendant.  Keep an eye out for cert petitions!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Cara, I liked your analysis and witty insights on this case...