Drivers who fight their cases in traffic court in Collier County, Florida are getting punished more harshly than motorists in other counties.
That’s what attorneys Mark Gold and Ted Hollander of The Ticket Clinic in West Palm Beach determined while traveling statewide representing motorists in traffic cases. And they’re accusing Collier County judges of conspiring to prejudge cases to whittle down their increased caseloads.
The dispositions grew even more severe after state budget cuts eliminated hearing officers, resulting in Collier County judges presiding over traffic cases beginning on April 1, adding to their caseloads.
The lawyers reviewed their cases and statewide statistics, determining that about 86 percent of those who contested their cases in Collier County were found guilty of speeding, compared with 5 percent statewide.
And 40 percent here were hit with license suspensions.
“That’s astronomical,” said Hollander, whose firm specializes in traffic tickets. “Nowhere do you see anything like that.”
Gold and Hollander said their clients also were being denied hardship licenses, which allow motorists to drive only to and from work.
They thought something unusual was going on, so they sought judges’ e-mails under the state public records law. They got 42. One provided insight.
An April 4 e-mail from County Judge Vince Murphy to all Collier County judges said he was writing to tell judges how he and Judge Eugene Turner handled cases that first day of traffic court. It referred to Hollander’s and Gold’s local co-counsel, Naples attorney Lee Carney, saying he set several cases for afternoon hearings to work out plea deals with law officers for withholds of adjudication. He urged judges not to accept deals once a case reaches hearing day.
The e-mail’s subject line is “Traffic Court sentencing” and says, in part:
a. Look back only to 1/1/00 for bad driving. If clean since then, probably no suspension.
b. Previous speeding ticket within 2-3 months … suspend D/L 30 days.
c. Triple-digit speed … suspend … length of susp. based on record.
d. Lots of speeding tickets … suspend D/L 3-12 months.
e. Teens or young 20s … short suspension if record isn’t bad.
f. Opportunity to pay the civil fine or to elect driving school is gone by hearing day. Need a very good reason to give a second bite at the apple. Grant a withhold extremely sparingly.
g. We had a couple of not guilty decisions. Remember that the burden is beyond a reasonable doubt. Above all, be fair.
h. If this is going to work, we need to discourage the practice of plea bargaining with the officers. …
The e-mail ended with a caution: “Remember, if we ever let the inmates run the asylum, a la Dade County, we will have to go through Hell to get it back.”
Hollander and Gold, who branded the e-mail evidence of Collier County’s traffic court policy and bias, filed a motion to disqualify all five Collier County judges from hearing traffic cases. Other similar motions followed. All were denied.
The first motion, filed May 16, contends that in an effort to reduce their caseload and to encourage all defendants to admit guilt and pay fines, rather than exercise their constitutional right to a trial, “the County Court Judges of Collier County conspired together to create an unlawful policy of suspending driver licenses, based upon a predetermined schedule …”
They attached the e-mail, saying the dispositions of cases proved they were following Murphy’s outline. The motion contended defendants are being punished for exercising their constitutional rights to a trial.
It argues that the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct states that judges are to perform their duties without prejudice and noted that bias or prejudice is manifested when a judge has a predisposition toward sentencing.
In a recent interview, Murphy explained that the e-mail was written only to show judges what he and Turner had considered that day, factors for disposing of each case. He pointed out that he reminded judges, “Above all, be fair.”
Murphy explained that many attorneys were walking around courtrooms, working out plea deals with officers, becoming disruptive — and judges needed to retain control.
He said courtrooms were packed in the mornings and law enforcement officers were spending too much time away from their jobs sitting in court all day, so Judge Christine Greider suggested pleas in the mornings, with hearings starting at 1:30 p.m., which freed officers in the mornings and saved law enforcement agencies money.
“Talk about a waste of resources,” Murphy said. “It sort of got out of control.”
Collier County is more severe, Murphy conceded, but only because he considers Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties more lenient.
He said he saw too many east coast drivers with bad driving records who received withholds of adjudication or dismissed tickets in east coast courtrooms.
“If someone got a ticket doing 100 mph on I-75, on the Broward side of the line, and gets a withhold and then goes and gets another speeding ticket for doing 100 mph, I’m thinking real hard that this person is an accident waiting to happen,” Murphy said. “Someone is going to die and they don’t understand that driving is a privilege.’’
He cited one trucker’s case in which he was caught speeding through a school zone and had a past history of speeding tickets that were dropped, so he suspended his license.
Murphy conceded his e-mail’s last sentence about inmates running the asylum was “regrettable,” adding, “What I meant to say was the tail shouldn’t be wagging the dog.”
“I think they’re judging us by an east coast standard and we’re on the west coast,” Murphy said, calling Collier judges impeccably fair. “We don’t have a policy. Every case is considered on its own facts.”
Judge Mike Carr also said he didn’t consider the e-mail a policy and he looks at each case individually.
“Our judges actually judge,” said Shannon McFee, a Naples defense attorney, “and some of these attorneys aren’t used to that and if they just want to do volume work, then they need to stay in Broward and Dade counties, where they can do that.
“But here, the judges are going to look at each file.”
Gold and Hollander contend they have proof the e-mail shows a policy.
“We’ve had no suspensions since we got it,” Hollander said of the e-mail.
During the past four weeks, Gold argued cases in which they’d filed motions to disqualify the county judges, along with other tickets they were contesting.
Greider was the first to deny the disqualification, ending in a lengthy hearing to determine guilt on a speeding ticket. But she withheld an adjudication of guilt, saying the driver had an impressive driving record, with no citations for 11 years.
Turner denied other motions to disqualify.
Attorneys are continuing to appeal the adjudications of guilt and suspensions to circuit court, where appeals from county court cases are heard.
Because traffic court hearings aren’t recorded, as they are in other courtrooms, Gold once brought in a videographer to record an entire day of traffic court. Since then, he’s paid a court reporter to transcribe the hearings so he can decide which ones to appeal.
The Tuesday afternoon traffic court hearings sometimes were tedious, but piqued the interest of many law enforcement officers who watched Gold’s repeated objections over numerous sections of traffic law.
Some arguments were that officers weren’t following manufacturer guidelines when checking the accuracy of radar guns. Instead, officers were using their own agencies’ guidelines, which Gold argued didn’t comply, or flicked a button on the gun, which said the gun was working fine.
But two weeks ago, Turner threw out some radar readings after officers admitted they used round or rectangular targets to gauge radar guns’ accuracy, when the manufacturer requires 1-foot-square targets.
Turner then allowed officers to testify what they believed the speed was, and despite lengthy, repeated objections and cross-examination by Gold about how long ago the officers took the classes to gauge speed, Turner sustained the officers’ testimony — ending in many clients being found guilty.
After two weeks of the same repeated objections, Turner, at one point asked Gold if he had any more. He didn’t.
“You’ve got more. I know you.” Turner said, half jokingly.
“I missed one?” Gold quipped.
Many of Gold’s repeated arguments had law enforcement officers who sat waiting for their cases nodding in approval and admiration. Some even congratulated Gold in the hallway, telling him there was no ill will in him ripping apart their testimony and qualifications.
Hollander and Gold don’t plan to give up their fight to prove Collier judges have a policy of prejudging.
Gold added: “We aren’t going to lie down and accept people being found guilty and fined without a fight.”
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