A trip to court and the extreme difficulty of deterring speeders

Most of the defendants that day pleaded no contest on various issues, and the majority received monetary penalties and no points on their licenses, cases which were largely fair. A large handful of these drivers received pats on the back for wearing seatbelts, finger-wagging for not doing so, and various short lectures about the importance of different driving responsibilities. Some people just need to be awakened by this experience. A hefty fine and half a morning in court are a deterrent to bad behavior.

But more than a few defendants have appealed for a jury trial for cases where they were at fault in crashes or caught speeding. This is where the justice process frustrates.

Less than 20 years ago, a series of tax and centralization of power measures reduced the size of the Atlanta City Court and shifted most jury trials to county court. This prevented the City Court from trying certain cases and being a sort of release valve for the county. Backlogs began to form.

COVID-related court rulings have compounded case backlogs. Drivers who face a loss of license or a prison sentence seek the help of lawyers. Any decent lawyer for jury trials. That then sends more cases to a later Fulton County court, keeping bad drivers on the streets even longer.

The case backlog reported to the Fulton court is 18 to 24 months. By the time the county can hear the defendant’s case, scoring any type of conviction is difficult. Do you remember that glut of officers? The arresting or ticketing officer for a case that dates back months or even years may have left the force, so the accused walks. The statute of limitations may expire before the case is heard. A person under 21 can age beyond the strict penalty for underage super-speeders.

A surprising number of people failed to show up for their arraignments last week. There are various reasons for this, but warrants are issued for people who do not meet this requirement. The problem is – just as is the case with speeding tickets – defiant, self-anointed kings of the road can just say, “Catch me if you can.”

The frustrating cycle continues

A few instances of my three-hour observation were blatantly dangerous. A person was driving 84 mph in a 55 zone, not wearing a seatbelt, had an expired dealer tag and watching YouTube on their cell phone. They pleaded no contest, but they still had a hefty fine and a mandatory trip to the driving school.

Another driver received his second extreme speeding ticket in a year; they were clocked at 98 mph in a 60 and not wearing their seatbelts. They surprisingly pleaded guilty, thus not asking for a trial.

When the judge pressed the 21-year-old speedster about where they were so eager to travel at 12:15 a.m., they admitted they were rushing to a strip club. The judge repeated what so many of us have heard over the past two years: the roads are in chaos right now.

This driver’s selfish decisions earned him the worst punishment I’ve seen: driving school, a nearly $1,000 fine, and a 30-day license suspension. They were also told that another offense like this would result in jail time. They were lucky not to have one at the time. If they had appealed for a trial, they most likely would have driven home.

The volume of trafficking cases in the city of Atlanta alone is staggering. And while judges have some tools to rein in flagrant violators — like suspending their licenses until jury trials with the county — those penalties can be tied to appeals.

The culture is bruised when it comes to responsible driving; people just seem to care less. And the people control system also needs to be overhauled. The prevalence of speeding and reckless road blockers may just be a trend. But if the courts continue to back down and the police remain understaffed, this rash on the streets will get worse.

Doug Turnbull, the PM Drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also has hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

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