I'm writing this article because I could not find any information about what to expect from the Santa Clara Traffic Court during my upcoming trial. So to benefit anyone else, here are my documented experiences.
My scheduled appearance at Santa Clara County Traffic court was for January 25, 2008 at 9am in the 935 Ruff Drive, San Jose California courthouse. Commissioner Jesus Valencia, Jr was indicated in the paperwork, however Commissioner Lisa Steingart was the judge present for my trial.
A little background about my case: I was ticketed for 38mph in a 5-lane 25mph school zone in front of a high school at 9:15am on a clear day. Since there were no children anywhere to be seen, I thought that the school zone wasn't in force and so the speed limit was 35mph, the normal rate for the street. Once I was pulled over and the officer was running my information, I took several photos with my camera phone of the surrounding area with absolutely no children present. I believed this would be sufficient evidence to show that the 25mph limit was not in effect.
I submitted my Trial by Declaration as recommended by several web sites, and the officer responded with Laser detail information and a fairly simple "There were children in front of the school gym." Since I has photos of his obstructed view of the gym, I thought I had a good chance at proving my innocence in court.
When entering the building, you'll pass through a security checkpoint. No cameras are allowed in the building.
Allotted time for my trial was the first of the day. A group of other defendants and officers that were also allotted the 9am slot were waiting outside the room until they opened it up.
Close to 9am the door was opened and we entered room. We could sit wherever we liked and the officers sat in the back.
There is a bailiff, a court reporter, and the judge present. Approximately 20 defendants in this session.
At the front of the room in front of the judge's bench were two tables side by side.
Judge started going through the cases that had already been settled or there was documentation that one or more parties couldn't attend.
She called off a few names and asked for a pronouncement of 'here'.
Mine was first on her list so I didn't have the advantage of seeing a previous case processed. My case was called and so I and the officer approached the tables.
The officer presented his case including general information on the street and area that I was ticketed in. He described my interaction with him at the stop and showed his evidence that his laser equipment was calibrated and he was certified to use it properly.
The officer misstated when he said that he showed me the Laser result. He mentioned that he was certified within +-5mph.
The only photo he presented was of the flashing "25 mph school zone when children present" sign hanging above the road.
Then I had my chance to argue the case. I was asked if I had any questions for the officer.
I asked how many children he had seen in front of the gym which turned out to be a mistake because he thought for a moment and said a group of them. I was planning on showing that he didn't remember, hadn't written it down, or got otherwise flustered.
I asked how far away from the gym he was. He responded 200ft which I would use later to show with evidence that his distance was actually more like 780ft (approximately the length of a city block.)
I was then given a chance to present my evidence. The judge seemed agitated that I didn't know the proper procedure.
I showed a satellite photo with text, photos, and diagrams overlaid on top and referred to it as a diagram. She specifically said that it was to be entered as a satellite photo. She explained that I had to show the evidence to the officer before I gave it to the court.
I presented photos showing that he wasn't in the location that he claimed on the citation or on the officer's declaration in response to my written declaration. The judge was perturbed about my mentioning evidence that wasn't present at this hearing. I pointed out that in the officer's presentation a few minutes earlier he repeated what was in the declaration I was referring to. I pointed out that the officer was in fact about the length of a city block (750ft) away from the gym and from the location he was claiming while he said that he was about 200ft away.
I presented photos that I thought proved that the officer couldn't see the gym from his actual location because his view was obstructed by trees and cars.
I didn't want to appear aggressive in front of the judge so that she wouldn't think that this was something I did all the time. However, if I had it to do over again, I would have pressed several issues with the officer:
I would have gotten him to admit that his testimony regarding his location was mistaken.
I would have asked him to point out where in the photos of the gym he would have been able to see children.
I would have argued that if those children were indeed in front of the gym, that they would be hundreds of feet from the road and my driving could not have risked their safety or any property, which is really what the Basic Speed law I was sited for says.
In the end the judge decided for the officer because she viewed my argument as saying that since the children could not be seen, the "children are present" tag didn't apply. That wasn't what I was trying to say, though.
Now that I've reviewed the entire process, it's obvious that that section of Monroe is a trap of sorts for motorists.. not that police or anyone designed it as such. Since the high school children are sometimes walking between classes (hundreds of feet away from the street and away from view from the street), technically that area is a 25mph zone even though everyone drives 35mph through there (even city busses). From experience, if children are present anywhere near the streets, I and other motorists always slow down to 25mph, and I thought this was sufficient. So really I was just unlucky enough to be the first car through when there were hidden children a block away at the time the officer was shooting Laser.
Given my lack of experience with anything legal, I might consider hiring a defense lawyer if the fine was sufficient enough to warrant it. Having someone on your team that knew the proper process and wouldn't be intimidated by it would help a bunch. I feel that I failed in this regard even though I thought I could handle it myself.
Another note, apparently you give up your chance to ask the county for traffic school if you try to argue your case in court. So take that into consideration when you decide to take your case to court. I was a bit flustered after I was found guilty and forgot to ask for traffic court before I left the court.