Unfixed Tickets: A Day at the Traffic Court

Home Brooklyn Life Unfixed Tickets: A Day at the Traffic Court
(Photo Courtesy of Azi Paybarah)

Rayan Nahle leans on a wall outside a courtroom at the Traffic Violations Bureau at Atlantic Center Mall, waiting for her hearing. Unlike others in the room who were missing work altogether to settle their traffic or parking tickets, she was using her lunch break to settle hers.

Although ticket fixing by New York police officers has not erupted on the news in a while, it is still not yet forgotten. “If I was in their shoes and somebody were to fix my ticket, I wouldn’t mind,” the Bay Ridge resident says. Smiling widely, she stands out in her bright yellow top, and jeans, since everyone else is dressed in dull colors. “You scratch my back, I scratch your back. I actually did know a cop but I gave my PBA card a little too late.”

When 11 police officers in the Bronx were charged in October this year with ticket fixing, many New Yorkers were outraged not only by the accusation of corruption, but also by the unfairness of a system in which the well connected – those with influence or with friends in the police department – could avoid having to come to traffic court to plead their cases, or for that matter, pay any fines at all. The arrests revealed a practice so endemic to city life that some 500 off-duty officers showed up to demonstrate their support outside the courthouse where the convicted were being charged. They chanted, “It happens all the time!” and carried banners that quoted Mayor Bloomberg: “It’s been going on since the days of the Egyptians.”

Those sentiments are echoed on a recent visit to traffic court, where most people, like Nahle, do not really seem to mind having to pay for their offenses. “I don’t mind,” said Richie Oballaes, who was ticketed for having tinted windows in his vehicle. “Everybody’s gotta do what they gotta do.”

The traffic court is filled with people, waiting in line to make their case to a judge. They stand with their backs resting on walls, or sit on the few benches waiting their turn to go inside the handful of courtrooms. Everyone looks grim.

Inside one of the courtrooms, a female police officer in a tight bun escorts a man in a black and grey hoodie and jeans to the judge. She reads details of the man’s offense and what she charged him for: pulling into the wrong lane.

“Raise your right hand, sir,” the judge says.

He raises his hand to take the oath.

“Do you have a witness?” the judge asks.

“No,” he replies.

The judge asks him to explain what had happened.

“I pulled into the wrong lane. I don’t deny that. But I didn’t want to get hit by the bus,” he says, in a pleading tone.

The judge asks him questions about what he could have done to avoid pulling into the wrong lane. He fails to convince her that he did not have other options. “You have two weeks to pay and 30 days to appeal my decision,” the judge says, finishing the hearing.

In another courtroom, a man in an olive jacket and pants has just finished his hearing and was lucky enough to have his offence dismissed. He reaches out to his escorting police officer to shake his hand. “Please don’t talk to the officer, please don’t shake hands with the officer!” the judge cried, startling the man.

The Ink asked around about ticket fixing and a few at the traffic court did not agree that it is practice that can be overlooked.

Unfair? “Absolutely” says Peter Leo, who left work early, to attend his hearing at the court. “The less power officers should have, the better. They shouldn’t have that ability,” he says. He was charged with $120 for using his cell phone while driving. Within a couple of minutes or so, he would be called inside one of the courtrooms.

Data analysis from the NYPD reveals that the city makes around $500 million annually on traffic and parking tickets. A breakdown in the NYPD’s motor vehicle accident report data for Brooklyn this year show that the most common traffic violations are failure to wear a safety belt, cell phone usage while driving, disobeying traffic signs, and being an uninsured driver. The NYPD Historical Crime Violation Report shows interesting trends: vehicle and traffic law offenses have increased from 3,717 offenses in 2000 to 5,542 offences in 2007. The number jumped to 8,228 offenses in 2008 but since then, the number has been steadily decreasing down to 5,824 offenses in 2010.

As the clock strikes 5 pm, the courthouse is now almost empty. Even if the handful of people who spoke to The Ink seemed to not mind ticket fixing in general, someone had scrawled a phrase that did not fit with those sentiments. The phrase is twice carved at the back of one of the wooden benches in the room and read “F*** POLICE.”


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