When I got my speeding ticket for going 35 mph in a 25 mph zone, all my friends laughed and jibed.
“Are you sure Moose can even go 35 mph in two blocks?” (Moose was a slow, 14 year old Land Rover Discovery)
“How the hell can you speed during rush hour traffic at 6:45pm? It's bumper to bumper then!” (SF traffic is horrendous thanks to robust employment compared to five years ago)
“Dude, you're a victim of racial profiling. Out of all the cars out there, they chose your piece of shit? Don't they have something better to do?”
I laughed at all three responses, but then I was asked again, “What color were the police officers?”
“They were both White,” I responded.
“Ah hah! Proof right there. You were targeted!” responded my Hispanic friend.
“Come on, that's just a coincidence,” I replied, even though I was miffed at getting pulled over when everybody was going the same speed during rush hour.
“Never forget Rodney King, Don Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and the town of Ferguson!” shouted my friend with one fist raised up high!
GETTING OVER THE WALLS
Although I've encountered plenty of racism growing up overseas and in the South (Virginia for high school and college), I haven't experienced much racism as an adult. Sure, there might have been some slights here and there, but not bad enough that I can remember any of them now. If you're racist in the work place, you'll probably get reported, reprimanded, or fired. Hence, people just keep their true thoughts to themselves like Don Sterling until he was exposed. And it doesn't make sense to be racist in San Francisco because minorities are the majority.
I had one main objective for deciding to go to court to fight my ticket: to understand the system and report back to help other readers figure out what to do. I've never gone to court for a traffic ticket, so I figured I might as well learn. Financial Samurai is all about providing helpful information based off real experience.
My traffic ticket was in the amount of $238, which is on the cheaper side of the spectrum. Plenty of traffic tickets can cost $400 – $800 nowadays based on the degree of the violation. I'm not sure how many people can easily afford such a fine. So I figured if I could infiltrate the beast to report back my findings, that could help a lot of people save.
What I noticed as I sat in Courtroom A at 850 Bryant St., San Francisco, turned out to be very interesting.
Here are some observations of the courtroom:
* Roughly 38 defendants. There were roughly 30-40 defendants standing outside in the hallway waiting for Courtroom B with very similar demographics to the defendants in my courtroom.
* 19 Hispanics. 14 were cited for driving without a license. The defendants were pulled over for some moving violation first and then it was discovered they didn't have valid drivers licenses.
* 16 Asians. Two were cited for tail gaiting. Five did not have a valid drivers license. A few didn't come to a complete stop at a stop sign.
* 2 Black guys. One was cited for blasting his music too loud and received a $900 ticket, which was reduced by $720 because the judge found the charge to be ridiculous. But he was also charged with not having a valid license.
* 1 White guy. A public school teacher who plead no contest to not stopping at a stop sign for half off the ticket cost for $131 + the ability to go to traffic school for no point on record for $52. Was the most contrite out of everyone. “Sorry your honor! Please forgive me! Money is tight and I will accept the plea,” he blurted out.
* 4 women out of roughly 38 defendants.
* Judge was a 50-something year old White man with a beard and glasses.
* Police clerk was a White man in his late 30s
* Both female secretaries to the judge were Black women in their 40s.
The things that stood out to me are:
1) An incredible number of the defendants didn't drive with a valid license (over 50%). They therefore didn't have valid car insurance either. If you get in an accident that's not your fault, chances seem high that you're screwed if you don't have comprehensive insurance. The guy with no insurance and no license who t-bones you probably doesn't have the money to pay for your damages out of pocket. Your insurance company can go after the other driver, but they'll probably turn up empty handed.
2) Men seem like more reckless drivers than women by a magnitude of 8:1. Or maybe police officers don't target women as much? The male defendants were cited for blaring their music too loud, speeding, taking illegal left turns, and not stopping at a stop sign. One of the women got caught stuck in an HOV lane when merging. Another woman got caught touching her mobile device to initiate her Bluetooth. And another woman was cited for tail-gaiting. I can't remember what the other one was cited for because it was all in Cantonese and I wasn't paying attention to the translation. A reader makes a good point that perhaps women tend to pay the ticket and not bother going to court, which is why there were so many less women in court.
3) There was only one White guy in the entire courtroom (2% of defendants). If the defendants represented the San Francisco population, then there should have been around 14 White defendants (40%). So either there's racial profiling going on, or minorities are just much worse drivers, or White violators have a higher propensity to pay their ticket and not defend themselves. We all know that people tend to take better care of people who look and talk the same way as them. Look around the office. It's no coincidence senior management are all from similar schools. It's no coincidence there are more of one minority or sex than another. So maybe, just maybe, a police officer can't help but be kinder to his/her own race, and more discriminating against another race. The counter argument is that there must be a correlation between bad driving due to inexperience. People without valid drivers licenses might be less experienced drivers. There were a lot of first generation Hispanics and Asians.
THE SECRET TO NOT GETTING PULLED OVER FOR A TRAFFIC TICKET
When was the last time grandma got pulled over for a traffic ticket? Never. Therefore, the best way to never get pulled over by a police officer is by driving slow and very carefully. But sometimes, driving conditions change. Maybe you need to gun it when you are passing a car because you timed your pass wrong. Maybe you stayed in the merged lane too long and it turned into a HOV lane before you realized it. Or maybe you're just being profiled. You never know.
Based on my afternoon in court, the strategy for reducing your chances of getting pulled over for a traffic ticket are as follows:
Try to look like a woman or make your wife, girlfriend, or female friend drive if there's a choice. With women accounting for only 10% of the defendants compared to being 50% of the population, chances are that women are more careful drivers who don't get targeted as much by police officers.
Try to conceal your race if you are not White while driving. The easiest way is to wear sunglasses and a hat to cover your hair and eyes. The law also allows you to tint your windows of varying degrees. You might even consider buying a long blond wig as well. Sounds ridiculous, but I'm just being logical with my observations. The more you can conceal your racial identity if you are a minority, the better, given 98% of the defendants in the courtroom were minorities.
Finally, get comprehensive car insurance unless your car is so cheap that it's not worth it. I only had liability insurance on Moose because if I got into an accident, I guessed there was a 50% chance the other driver would have caused it and therefore would pay to fix Moose. And if it was my fault, Moose was cheap enough to donate away for parts as a 14 year old vehicle with a lot of problems. But now that I witnessed half of the drivers didn't have valid licenses or insurance, I think I overestimated my chances the other driver's insurance would pay for a damage they caused. Make sure your insurance has uninsured motorist coverage, as that might be extra.
PAY THE FINE OR FIGHT TO THE BITTER END?
If you go to court, you will usually get leniency from the judge to have your ticket reduced. 100% of the defendants who decided to plead no contest got their ticket fines reduced by 50%-70%. If you plead no contest, the plea does not count against you in any civil suit or other legal suit. You get to go to traffic school (4 hours online, 8 hours in person), which allows you to avoid a point on your driving record.
Depending on your driving record, your insurance premiums could increase significantly with an extra point, and stay that way for years until the violation is removed. In California, a point lasts on your record for three years and one month, for example. Let's say my premium would have gone up 30% every six months. That would be $1,200 more in premiums I would have to pay over three years.
The problem with going to driving school is the cost and time. There's an “administration fee” of $52 in California. Hence, despite my ticket being reduced from $238 to $119, I still have to pay a total of $172 plus my time completing traffic school. I was very close to just saying “screw it,” paying the $238 fine, and skipping out on traffic school because I've had a clean driving record for the past eight years. And I did not believe my insurance would go up after talking to USAA. But like I said earlier, I wanted to see if I could find any insights into this experience. Be aware that you have to pay for traffic school up front. And if you decide you are too busy to go to traffic school after you've paid, you don't get a refund.
Finally, if you decide to have your second day in court (the first day is arbitration), know that if you lose, you will not only have to pay the original ticket fine, there's a high chance you won't be eligible for traffic school anymore. Furthermore, if you have a bad driving record, the arbitration judge said your second judge could impose additional penalties if you are found guilty.
I hope everybody got some helpful insights out of this arduous journey. The judge said to me, “You thoroughly investigated all your options unlike any other I've met in my courtroom before.” His response and the articles that have come out of this $238 ticket (reduced to $172 all-in) have made it all worth it.
Some tips on how to not get your ass kicked by Chris Rock:
* Lower Your Auto Insurance Costs: Check out Esurance online. They have some of the best plans with the lowest rates around due to their lower overhead costs. It's worth spending a moment filling out a quote to see if you can save some money. Car insurance is one of the largest ongoing expenses for car owners. Esurance has good driver discounts, and multi-product discounts as well.
Updated for 2019 and beyond.