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What should I do after being cited for fare evasion on Caltrain?
July 1, 2009 11:42 PM   Subscribe

I was cited for fare evasion on Caltrain. What are my options, and which ones are wise?

I bought a ticket by credit card from one of the electronic vending machines just before getting on the train on the Mountain View Caltrain station going to San Francisco. On the way back from SF, shortly before arriving at Mountain View, the conductor started checking tickets. I looked at mine and noticed to my dismay that, in my rush to get on the train that morning, I had inadvertently bought the one-way ticket instead of the day pass. When the conductor reached my row, I showed him my ticket, explained my mistake, and offered to make up the difference in fare (I had more than enough cash on me). He instead cited me for California PC 640(b)(1) ("Evasion of the payment of a fare of the system"). I received the citation in the mail today and the bail is set at $245. The maximum punishment is a fine of $250 and 48 hours of community service. I have the option to just forfeit the bail.

So, I have a few questions:

1. If I appear in court and tell my story, is there any chance that my fine will be reduced?
2. If so, should I request a court trial or just an arraignment?
3. Do I have anything to gain from pleading "not guilty"? I was not trying to evade the fare, and I was willing to pay when I realized my error.

Thanks in advance for any advice.
posted by pmdboi to Law & Government (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Not a lawyer, but it's worth noting that pretty much everyone is willing to pay the fare instead of a fine which is around 100x higher. That argument might not hold much water, true as it may be.
posted by vernondalhart at 12:05 AM on July 2, 2009


I don't know. I, too, have screwed up the fare payment but never got cited. Enforcement is fairly recent for Caltrain (less than a few years) so I don't know you'll find many people with experience on this.
posted by chairface at 12:17 AM on July 2, 2009


How often do you make the trip? Maybe if you have many receipts showing you usually buy the roundtrip fare, and just screwed up this one time, you might have an argument.

If you can't provide some evidence that this was just a mistake, though, then vernondalhart has a strong point.
posted by nat at 12:34 AM on July 2, 2009


I'm sorry, I'm so not a lawyer, but as far as I know there is no "choose between a court trial and an arraignment." You appear at court to have the charges read against you, and that is your arraignment. If you choose to plead not guilty, the judge will set a date for your trial.

If Caltrain is anything like my experiences in traffic court, you will almost for sure receive a reduction or elimination in your fine if you show up to court, with a clean record, tell the judge you bought the wrong kind of ticket (bring it with you, hopefully it is dated), apologize and plead no contest.
posted by phaedon at 12:37 AM on July 2, 2009


I got cited on caltrain - if you appear in court and tell your story you will likely get a reduced fine but will not get the ticket dismissed. I just went to the arraignment and plead guilty so I can't say anything about pleading not guilty. The fine is pretty steep so it was definitely worth the time to appear in court.
posted by kechi at 12:55 AM on July 2, 2009


I had inadvertently bought the one-way ticket instead of the day pass. When the conductor reached my row, I showed him my ticket, explained my mistake, and offered to make up the difference in fare

This is also, if you remove 'inadvertent' from the sentence, one of the oldest tricks in the book to try and get past paying the higher fare. Buy a one way ticket and trust to luck that you won't get caught. It's just that bit less brave than trying to wing it with no ticket at all.

As such, you got cited because it's an old, old story and has been relied on way too much as a 'genuine mistake'. I can't imagine your (utterly plausible and understandable to you) excuse will hold any water with people that hear this all the time. This may help you decide what to do, or it may not. How convincing can you be?
posted by Brockles at 5:08 AM on July 2, 2009


In my experience with other transit systems the conductor will take a one way ticket from you once it has been used. So perhaps the conductor did not do that, and added to your confusion. The fact that you offered up a reasonable excuse, and offered to pay before the conductor even saw your ticket should invalidate the 'fare evasion' charge. If there is no way to buy or upgrade a ticket on the train, then the conductor probably had no choice but to cite you. It still doesn't mean you are guilty. However my Jesuit school upbringing says there is no excuse for ignorance of the law. If it is a known policy that you cannot buy or upgrade tickets on the train you may be hosed and have some jug time to do.
posted by Gungho at 5:21 AM on July 2, 2009


However my Jesuit school upbringing says there is no excuse for ignorance of the law.

Wait, I can write a short law school essay on this!

This isn't an "ignorance of the law" situation - "ignorance of the law" is for example "Oh, I didn't KNOW the speed limit was 50, I thought it was 65!" or "I didn't know I was not allowed to have sex with that duck." My Jesuit law school says so....

If you want to get into the theory, I think what OP is asking is whether his lack of intent to violate the law is a defense. Some crimes require intent, others do not (strict liability). OP's question boils down to "Is mistake a defense against the charge of evasion of the payment of a fare of the system."

The code section does not indicate a requirement of intent. It lacks the words "willfully," "knowingly," "with intent to so evade," or similar. In addition, it states "any of the acts described..." As a result, on its face, it appears to me that the code section is a strict liability infraction with a fine applied regardless of the perpetrator's intent to willfully evade a fair, likely for the reasons that Brockles suggests.

Accordingly, under the statute, there is no defense/excuse for "accident" and there is likely no right to attempt to prove it was an accident. The right to prove it was an accident would only arise if, legally, it mattered whether it was an accident. Having said that, OP hopes to take the luck of finding a sympathetic judge. My suggestion to the OP would be to balance any cost associated with taking that chance (missing work hours, court fees, spending $50 to park for the day, whatever) with the (very small) hope that a busy judge will take 5 minutes to listen AND will care, after his/her time has been wasted. If OP feels the benefits of fighting outweigh the costs, go for it.
posted by bunnycup at 6:53 AM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


bunnycup, taken wholly on its own, I would argue that the word "evade" by its very nature indicates intent. Ballentine's Legal Dictionary defines it as:
To escape; to slip away; to take refuge in flight or artifice.
"To take refuge in... artifice" implies intent, although merely "to escape" does not.

But as you point out, the rest of that subsection enumerates primarily strict liability offences with the exception of (b)(2) "Misuse of a transfer, pass, ticket, or token with the intent to evade the payment of a fare" and (b)(6) "Willfully disturbing others on or in a system facility or vehicle by engaging in boisterous or unruly behavior." This means that pmdboi will probably have an uphill battle as you point out.
posted by grouse at 8:10 AM on July 2, 2009


I'm flummoxed by the idea that you can't buy a ticket ON the train - every train system I have been on (admittedly, all on the east coast) have let you buy a ticket on the train, usually with a surcharge to make more money off people who didn't use the machines ahead of time.

I did some quick googling, and the following line appears in this news announcement from the Caltrain website:

"New onboard fares, which will go into effect Jan. 1, 2009, increase ticket costs by 25 cents, with multi-ride tickets and passes adjusted accordingly."

From what it shows here, you should have the option to buy the ticket on board the train. Unless I'm missing something, there was no reason to be cited for this. I definitely don't see anything that says you must buy it before boarding, unless it's local to the stations only.
posted by GJSchaller at 8:37 AM on July 2, 2009


nat: I don't take Caltrain very often, but I had made the same trip the day before (although from Lawrence Station instead of Mountain View) and bought the correct ticket that time. Both trips were for a conference that week.

phaedon: Thanks for the clarification. This is my first time dealing with the court system and I'm still trying to figure out how everything works.

It sounds like my best bet is to go to the arraignment, plead "guilty," and hope for the best, as it's been made clear that intent doesn't enter into the question.
posted by pmdboi at 9:56 AM on July 2, 2009


>Both trips were for a conference that week

Heh, I was doing the same thing from Sunnyale last month, first Caltrain then BART. I found driving up to Millbrae and taking BART to Powell was the better way to get downtown. Half the walk and a bit less time even factoring in traffic.

I was somewhat miffed that they didn't check tickets on the return Caltrain ride . . .
posted by @troy at 10:15 AM on July 2, 2009


I definitely don't see anything that says you must buy it before boarding, unless it's local to the stations only.

These are posted all over the stations, yes, because the system in its total idiocy doesn't have ticket wickets, so freeloaders caught could just say, "oh, I forgot" or something.
posted by @troy at 10:18 AM on July 2, 2009


What is a ticket wicket in the context of an ordinary transportation system?
posted by grouse at 10:38 AM on July 2, 2009


These are posted all over the stations, yes, because the system in its total idiocy doesn't have ticket wickets, so freeloaders caught could just say, "oh, I forgot" or something.

Wow. Just... wow. That sounds like Caltrain's problem, although that doesn't help here.

You think someone at Caltrain, or even in the Department of Transportation, would step up and say "Why don't we sell tickets on the train? Make more money, less issues with freeloaders, less clogging up of the courts with needless evasion citations." Metro North in NYC has portable credit card devices, in the event cash isn't available on a train. Granted, CA has bigger issues at the moment, but maybe this would help reduce the deficit out there. ;-)
posted by GJSchaller at 11:24 AM on July 2, 2009


grouse: A ticket wicket is also known as a turnstile and a fare gate.

And one of the reasons I suppose Caltrain doesn't sell tickets on the train is because of the crazy short distances between stops on the locals. The only other regional systems I've ridden are SEPTA and NJ Transit, and the station-to-station times are long enough that a conductor can make a full sweep of the train, selling tickets when needed, long before the next stop comes up. You'd need a conductor on every car or two for that to work on Caltrain.

They might be able to make it work on the Baby Bullets, but I'd imagine that they'd need to implement a flat rate for onboard tickets, so people don't take advantage of the zone system.
posted by clorox at 1:05 PM on July 2, 2009


Caltrain works a little weird. They don't sell tickets on the train at all (which is wicked frustrating when you're running to catch the train and don't have time to buy a ticket at the station before). I used to ride it daily for 4 stops (Palo Alto-Mountain View) and found that my ticket would get checked less than once a week (although this was a couple years ago). I still occasionally take the train from Palo Alto up to SF and find that my ticket gets checked every other trip or so on the way up, and always at the station getting onto the train on the way back.

My impression is that they just don't hire enough conductors, so rely on the threat of the big fine to ensure that people do in fact buy a ticket even if it likely will not be checked. As for your chances of getting the fine reduced, I would guess that it depends on how mice the judge is feeling (although this is just a guess, as I've never gotten cited). The conductors can't sell you a ticket, but I have seen conductors let people get off at the next stop to use the kiosk and buy a ticket when they didn't have one. Some people had pretty bad excuses, too, along the lines of "oops I forgot." I don't think I've actually seen someone get a citation, or maybe once, but I generally rode the train in the middle of the day. I imagine they're less forgiving during regular commuting hours.
posted by hatsforbats at 1:12 PM on July 2, 2009


My impression is that they just don't hire enough conductors, so rely on the threat of the big fine to ensure that people do in fact buy a ticket even if it likely will not be checked.

Well, Caltrain used to sell tickets on the train, and at that point there were more conductors. It took them a lot of time to go through a car, and there were occasionally times when I got on and off before the conductor ever got to me. I've always been curious if the newer system is more cost-effective.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:36 PM on July 2, 2009


I have nothing to add but an anecdote. I was traveling on a SEPTA train from the Philadelphia Airport to 30th St. Station. A woman's flight was cancelled due to a huge snowstorm, and she got on the train without a ticket or cash.

The conductor berated her for a good five minutes, during which time the other passengers on the train elected to pay her fare. Instead, the conductor allowed her to ride for free. It was really horrible for everyone on the train. I guess you could say she paid with public humiliation.
posted by pantsonfire at 12:49 AM on July 3, 2009


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