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So You Got a Traffic Ticket! Now What? - July 2007

All of the columns I’ve written during the last year have been about serious matters like pretrial release, problem-solving courts, and domestic violence. Although a traffic ticket may not seem very important, it’s the reason that most Hennepin County citizens interact with our court system. Each year our court handles over 500,000 traffic and parking tickets. Over the last few years, we have made several changes to our system to make it easier and more convenient for citizens to resolve their traffic tickets. It’s worthwhile to explain exactly how the system works.

Most people who get a ticket simply pay it and accept the consequences. Payment can be made by mail, by coming to the Violations Bureau in person with payment, or by paying on our web site using a credit card. If the ticket is not a moving violation, it doesn’t go on your driving record. If it is a moving violation, then paying the ticket is an admission of guilt, and the court sends the conviction to the Department of Public Safety which reports the conviction on the driving record. It’s very important to take care of a ticket, because if you fail to pay it or come to court, then your drivers’ license is suspended.

However, some people believe that they are not guilty of the charge, or they can’t afford to pay the fine, or they want to try and keep the charge off the driving record even if it means paying money to do so. In these cases, rather than pay the ticket, you can call and schedule a hearing in our Hearing Office. The advantage of the Hearing Office is that citizens don’t have to take a day off work to go to court or take up court time to resolve relatively minor matters. Last year, our Hearing Officers saw over 100,000 people who came in to talk about their tickets. You can walk in to our Hearing Office without an appointment in the downtown Government Center. You can also make appointments with a Hearing Officer in all of our suburban locations, at Brookdale, Southdale and Ridgedale. We also offer evening appointments at our Ridgedale location. Hearing Officers have the ability to offer payment plans, to allow you to do Sentence to Service if you can’t afford the fine, and, in some cases, can offer you the opportunity to keep the moving violation off your driving record. The authority a Hearing Officer has to resolve a moving violation depends on the city where the violation occurred.

The reason for this is the concept of separation of powers. The police who write tickets and the city attorneys who prosecute the charges are part of the executive branch of government and work for the city where the violation occurred. City prosecutors have the power to prosecute charges, reduce charges, dismiss charges, and offer continuances for dismissal, all as part of their executive branch power. The courts are a separate branch of government and judges preside over our adversarial system of justice which has the prosecutor on one side and the defendant on the other. The court has responsibility for hearing cases, presiding over trials, sentencing within the law and insuring that those who come to court have their constitutional rights protected. The court does not generally have the authority to dismiss a case or to continue a case for dismissal because this power belongs to the prosecutor.

This is the reason why the Hearing Officers, who work for the court, are not able to dismiss cases or offer continuances for dismissal, unless the prosecutor gives them permission to do so. Over the last few years, almost all the prosecutors in Hennepin County have given the Hearing Officers some power to resolve tickets from their cities; however, the scope of the power varies from city to city. For example, in the City of Minneapolis, if a driver has had a clean driving record for two years and has no other pending cases, the Hearing Officer can offer a continuance for dismissal for one year provided that the driver pays a specified amount as prosecution costs and stipulates to the facts. This resolution keeps the offense off the driving record. However, if the driver gets a new moving violation conviction within that year, then there is an automatic entry of a conviction for the charge that was continued. Minneapolis also agrees that a driver who can’t afford to pay the costs can do work service in the Sentence to Service (STS) program instead of paying the prosecution costs. On the other hand, if the offense occurred in Crystal, the driver must have a clean driving record for five years and must pay the prosecution costs in order to qualify for a continuance for dismissal. For this reason, it’s necessary for the Hearing Officer to talk to each driver, determine where the offense occurred, what the offense is, what authority the Hearing Officer has for that jurisdiction, and then check the driver’s driving record and court record to see if the driver qualifies for a continuance for dismissal.

The Hearing Office is very effective at resolving cases. More than 85% of the cases heard in the Hearing Office are resolved without the need for a court date. If the case is not resolved, then a driver has two choices. If the driver wants to talk personally to the city attorney to try and reach a resolution, then the driver can schedule the case for court for that purpose. However, if the charge is a simple petty misdemeanor traffic case, and the driver wants to go directly to trial, then the case can be set for trial before a judge. If the case is a misdemeanor traffic case, like driving after suspension or driving without insurance, then the driver has to go to court and has a right to an attorney and a jury trial.

In the City of Minneapolis, we have a special traffic court where we handle all the traffic cases that could not be resolved in the Hearing Office. Our traffic court is held once each month in different communities around Minneapolis to make it easier for citizens to get to court without having to go downtown. Currently we hold traffic court at the Brian Coyle Center, at the Minneapolis Urban League, at Powderhorn Partners, and at Eastside Neighborhood Services.

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