Always take your ticket to traffic court. Especially if you’re guilty.
(I ran a red light on my bike)
It was one of those February days in Brooklyn where the wind slices through your clothes like an icy razor. I pedaled my bike towards an intersection, slowed for the red light, and scanned for oncoming cars. All was clear, so I hammered my pedals through the red light.
30 seconds later, a cop car sidled up, matching my speed. The passenger window rolled down and a thick Brooklyn accent said, “You see that red light back there?”
“Sorry about that.”
The cop wrote me a ticket and explained my options. Plead guilty and pay a fine of $190 by mail, or plead not guilty and take the ticket to traffic court.
Four months later, on a swampy day in July, I headed to traffic court. I had pled not-guilty because $190? That’s loco. And because you pay 100% of the traffic fines you don’t contest.
But now, my court day and the panic had arrived. I had no defense planned. I was guilty. My socks felt damp.
The Brooklyn Traffic Court is located in a mall. No joke, it’s next to an Auntie Anne’s Pretzel kiosk. Inside, I found my name on a list tacked to a corkboard: Skyler Swezy Courtroom #3.
Courtroom #3 had no windows, the floor was your standard DMV linoleum and the walls were painted government beige, like the color of plastic cups in nursing homes.
The judge’s stand was a raised platform near the room’s entrance. Rows of wooden benches faced the stand, people had carved graffiti into them. That’s ballsy. One wall was lined with a long wooden bench with a sign above it that read, “POLICE SEATING.”
I approached the judge and her court clerk in their little tower of traffic justice. Both of their desks were stacked with files and they stared at ancient computer monitors.
“Put your ID in the basket,” said the court clerk without looking up. She was a middled-aged black woman who’d seen it all.
“You have entered a plea of not guilty, correct?” She said.
“Have a seat Mr. Swezy.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
I sat in the first row, like a good student. An old woman in the back row cooed at a baby stroller. Grandmas go to traffic court too.
I began to judge the judge. In her late 40’s, she was either a smoker or the years of listening to drivers contest tickets had weathered her face. A heavy-set woman, she wore a bright-pink top that was more T-shirt than blouse. Oh man, I feared her.
I hadn’t thought this through. I’d come to court with no defense strategy. Ideally, the officer wouldn’t show and the judge would dismiss my case. But what if he did show up? Lie? Your honor, the light was green and I don’t even own a bike.
Or whine about the price of the fine? I don’t have the money your honor. Please, I have a three-legged dog at home, I work at 9 different McDonalds, my baby can’t read!
Or give a speech about the unjust treatment of cyclists? We are being run over by garbage trucks and hunted by the police, this is about freedom!
Other defendants began to arrive: a guy wearing a Carolina Panthers football jersey, a young married couple dressed for court, their arms covered in tattoos, and a woman in a pantsuit with a briefcase.
Police officers also trickled in, some uniformed, some in plainclothes. Five minutes before 3pm, my cop, Officer Castrano, still hadn’t showed up. He’s busy, it’s his day off, he’s coaching a little league game, he’s installing an air conditioner for his mother-in-law.
Two days before, I’d seen him chilling in his squad car a couple blocks from my house. I realized my neighborhood was part of his regular patrol. He’d be around.
Then officer Castrano stepped into Courtroom #3.
A man of average height and above average width, his belly had caused his gun belt to sag, and he synched it up before sitting on the police bench.
Castrano didn’t look at me. My mind raced. I thought of white lies, I kinda rolled through the light, I thought it was turning green.
Or I could straight-up call him a liar. That’s a brash move, call this cop a liar right to his face. I’d be a liar, calling him a liar. And then, what? He’d see me around the neighborhood. He’d write me a 1,000 tickets, then plant a kilo of biker meth on me.
Panic time. What if I lied in court and then he somehow proved I was lying? Could they charge me with perjury?
I snuck a look at Castrano. He was checking his phone. No telling if he remembered me.
The judge stood and explained how the proceedings would work, “When called, the defendant will approach the bench. I will state the charges. The defendant will enter a plea of guilty or not-guilty. The officer will provide a report of the incident. The defendant has the opportunity to refute the charges and may present any evidence or call a witness. Then, I rule on the case.”
I could just play dumb. Or tell the truth, Honestly, your honor, this is a lot of money for me and I was hoping the officer would not show up today. That sounded smart ass.
First up, was a black man ticketed for a broken tail light. The judge swore him in. He presented a receipt for a new tail light and a photo of it installed. Case dismissed, no fine. The man smiled at the officer and did a little I win dance. I liked this guy.
Next, the judge called the young woman with tattoos. A female officer also approached the bench. The woman had made an illegal U-turn. The officer gave a report using phrases like “at 21-hundred hours” and “illegal operation of vehicle.”
The young woman protested, “Your honor, there wasn’t a no U-turn sign.”
“Whether or not a sign is present, it’s still illegal to make a U-turn in a business district,” the judge said.
“Yes, your honor but I’m from New Jersey. There was no sign. How could I know?”
“Whether or not you’re aware that you are breaking the law, does not change the fact that you broke the law. I find you guilty. Pay the fine in full.”
The cops chuckled a bit. This judge was serving up justice to whiners. I was fucked.
“Next up, Skyler Swezy,” said the judge.
I stepped to the bench, I didn’t know what I’d say. Castrano stood beside me.
“Mr. Swezy, you received a citation for failing to stop at a red light on a bicycle.”
Castrano nodded his head in confirmation.
“How do you wish to plead?”
“Guilty, your honor!” I said.
I caught her off guard.
“You say it with such certainty, Mr. Swezy,” she said.
“Well, I’m guilty your honor. Super guilty.”
This felt right. She smiled.
“Officer Castrano, do you affirm his plea of guilty?”
“Yes, your honor but I meant to cite him for a general cycling violation not a red light violation.”
“Ok, let’s update that.”
She typed something and printed a paper.
“Please sign your name next to guilty. Ok, Mr. Swezy, your fine is $50. Have a nice day.”
This was an unexpected karmic twist, Lady Justice had just given me a fist bump and said, “I got your back, homie.”
I’ve lied to cops in my life, but in this situation, telling the truth felt like removing a splinter. I don’t know if officer Castrano was rewarding my honesty or if he actually thought he’d made a mistake while writing my ticket. Either way, the $190 fine was now $50, so I paid the court bondsman and got the hell out of there fast.
So here’s a little advice to all my traffic violators out there, always plead not guilty. Then, on your court day, at the last possible moment, confidently plead guilty. Don’t lie. Sure the truth will cost you, but it’s affordable.