Will they throw the book at me?
January 21, 2007 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Going to court in MA because I'm not such a smooth criminal.

In mid-November 2006, I was pulled over for having an expired vehicle registration (it expired just over a month before). Unbeknownst to me, my driver's license expired the month before (I was on a 10 year renewal and had completely forgotten about it). I also had unpaid parking tickets that caused both license and registration to be suspended, My plates were taken by the police and my car towed away. The officer told me that if I took care of getting my license and registration reinstated quickly, chances are that they will just let me off.

I just received my criminal(!!) complaint notice and my arraignment date at the Waltham District Court.. I am quite terrified. I've never been charged with criminal violations before. I've never had to appear in court before. I have no idea what to expect. What should I bring with me? How should I dress? What should I plead, guilty or no contest? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts to Law & Government (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Forgot to add...within a week after getting pulled over, I had everything taken care of. All tickets paid, license renewed and a sparkly fresh registration.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 12:28 PM on January 21, 2007

Wear a suit, act contrite, show them the documents that demonstarte that you now have a valid license and registration, plead nolo contendre. Dismissed! Next case.
posted by fixedgear at 12:33 PM on January 21, 2007

TicketAssassin is a tremendous resource, but it's focused on California law. There will be differences, but not major ones, IMO.
posted by frogan at 12:49 PM on January 21, 2007

Speaking from personal experience -- if you show up in Waltham District Court and the police officer who tagged you does not (which apparently happens with some frequency), your case will be summarily dismissed.
posted by briank at 1:00 PM on January 21, 2007

Response by poster: briank - I know that's the case with typical traffic tickets. Is that still the case even though these are criminal violations?
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 1:13 PM on January 21, 2007

I got served a bench warrant for ignoring a $15 ticket for riding my bike on campus (in Cal). I showed up for the court date and things were heiki again.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:14 PM on January 21, 2007

Contrary to fixedgear's legal advice, being arraigned in district court is a whole different ballgame than appearing to pay/contest a civil infraction in traffic court -- the Waltham DA is now trying to convict you of a crime. The purpose of an arraignment is to formally read the charges against you; there will be no "oops, the officer didn't show up, har har" dismissal.

Why did it not occur to you already to call a lawyer? At the very least you should call the county PD, if you really can't afford a private attorney. Check out this page for starters; I don't know what county Waltham is in.
posted by rkent at 1:29 PM on January 21, 2007

Wlatham is in Middlesex County.
posted by paulsc at 1:36 PM on January 21, 2007

Wear a suit and tie, and nice shoes.

Bring every bit of documentation you have, and the means to pay a fine or pay a bond if necessary.

Lawyer-up or get some good legal advice before deciding what to plea. The cost of a lawyer may be less than the cost of a guilty or no contest plea. Also call up your insurance agent and examine your policy to determine what the costs of a guilty plea would be.

The first hearing is likely to be very short. You will be told the charges and asked whether you plea guilty, not guilty or no contest (which may be just as bad as guilty, depending on your situation). The judge will then decide whether to carry the case forward, or impose some kind of surety to make certain you come to court.

At this time, you may be informed of pre-trial diversion options such as a fine or traffic school. These are good if they keep your record clean.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:37 PM on January 21, 2007

If it's like up here and you have no criminal record and it was just an amazingly stupid mistake (I did something similar once with my licence, but not with insurance) then you shouldn't be freaked because you did the right thing and will have the papers to show it. However, I think that to get some legal advice, if not ultimately representation, would be wise.
posted by Listener at 1:46 PM on January 21, 2007

Speaking from personal experience -- if you show up in Waltham District Court and the police officer who tagged you does not (which apparently happens with some frequency), your case will be summarily dismissed.

That only works if you've challenged the validity or accuracy of a parking ticket or moving violation, and even then, absence of the ticketing officer doesn't drop the ticket every time. They usually send a statie to represent the officer.

In this case, he's being charged with a crime, with the county DA's office prosecuting. Get some legal advice, Cat Pie. I don't know if you necessarily have to lawyer up entirely, but you do need advice.
posted by jerseygirl at 2:15 PM on January 21, 2007


Seriously, that's the best, best thing you can do. In many states, Driving with a suspended license is a misdemeanor, and in KS there is a mandatory 5 day minimum sentence. I don't know about MA, but not getting a lawyer at this point is just fucking stupid. It might seem like a lot of money, but compared to the cost of losing your license for a year or so it's nothing.
posted by delmoi at 2:19 PM on January 21, 2007

Basically the deal is, the judge and prosecutor will have their own ideas about what's appropriate for you, they might not care, or they might really care. Your lawyers job is to know the law, but it's also to know the local players. Your lawyer should have worked many cases with these guys and be able to negotiate the best possible outcome for you.

Different judges, different prosecutors, different results. You need a local lawyer who knows the people involved.

Don't leave anything to chance.
posted by delmoi at 2:24 PM on January 21, 2007

even then, absence of the ticketing officer doesn't drop the ticket every time. They usually send a statie to represent the officer.

I'm not a lawyer or a police officer, but I am a MA resident with some experience in traffic court. According to my understanding and experience, the process of challenging a ticket is twofold. Your first appearance will be in front of a magistrate (usually inside a small office), where a random state police officer is appointed daily to represent the various officers who issued tickets to each defendant. If you lose that hearing, you are entitled to a courtroom appearance before a judge — and at that point, the actual officer who wrote the ticket does have to appear or else the citation is dismissed.

Yes, the OP should contact a lawyer. Check your e-mail, OP.
posted by cribcage at 2:33 PM on January 21, 2007

I'm reminded of the old saying he who represents himself has a fool for a client. Not that you're a fool Cat Pie Hurts, but whenever facing any kind of criminal charge its always best to get a lawyer. I worked at a county State Attorney office for a time in Illinois, and from experience most of time, for something like this, you aren't going to get too bad a slap on the wrist. That being said, a lawyer will get the best possible deal and you don't want to try and handle it yourself if the best deal possible is what you want. Best wishes, I hope it all works out quickly for you!
posted by rfbjames at 2:33 PM on January 21, 2007

A very very similar thing happened to me about 5 or 6 years ago - I just wrote a whole long reply to your question then erased it as I'd totally remembered things wrong.

The VERY long story short: I got pulled over for driving without a license - I didn't realize my license had been revoked due to unpaid parking tickets. I paid off the overdue tickets, then got a scary criminal notice in the mail. When my court date came I went to the Waltham courthouse and spoke with my court-appointed attorney. He put my mind at ease. Basically, he did all the talking and it all ended up fine. I dressed up nice, I was as polite as I could be with everyone I came in contact with and it went very smoothly.

Being in the court room really put things into perspective. There were much more serious issues at hand there that day. My driving violation seemed like a very stupid thing to be wasting the court's time with. and that's pretty much how it was handled. very quick, very to the point - I think the judge told me to be more careful or something.

I'm definitely quick to pay off every ticket I get now...
posted by soplerfo at 2:50 PM on January 21, 2007

... but I am a MA resident with some experience in traffic court. According to my understanding and experience, the process of challenging a ticket is twofold. Your first appearance will be in front of a magistrate (usually inside a small office)...

But this is not traffic court before a magistrate, this is district court, before a full-fledged judge and a prosecutor who intends to convict the OP of a crime. Just because this experience started with an everyday traffic stop does not mean that it can be put to rest at this point with all these traffic court anecdotes!!

Cat Pie: please at least call either the Middlesex County public defender (linked above, I think) or a private attorney before you start to relax. I'll bet dollars to donuts that the accusing officer will not be in court, and that this furthermore will have no bearing whatsoever to how your case proceeds.
posted by rkent at 2:51 PM on January 21, 2007

But this is not traffic court before a magistrate...

Right. And if you'll read closely, you'll notice that after replying to Jerseygirl's comment, I changed tack to advise the OP that he should contact an attorney — and then indicated that I'd sent him an e-mail with a more pointed reply for his circumstance. So take a deep breath, and put the boldface and exclamation marks back in your pocket.
posted by cribcage at 3:09 PM on January 21, 2007

My boyfriend was in this situation in Concord, MA recently (minus the parking tickets and towing, but the officer said if he took care of renewing his license and registration, the judge would likely dismiss it.)

Here are my recommendations, woven into our experience there:

Go to court, get there early. You will be one of the first to arrive, half of the other people there won't be there 'til 11, (cheap-ass) lawyers also.

Dress professionally, suit and tie if it fits your budget. This is out of respect for the judge. Even the poor kid who couldn't afford a suit and was wearing a cheap short sleeve dress shirt and borrowed 1981 knit tie looked better than the other 80% of the people there for their court date : skanky thugs who dared wear jeans, hoodies, all sorts of bling, and baseball caps (we had a field day with our snarky, yet silent, red-carpet commentary on the attire of those people there for assault, battery, and OUI).

After you go through security, ask where the probation office is. This took us a bit of time to figure out, and there were no signs nor instructions on his arraignment subpoena.

At the probation office/desk, show them the subpoena and they'll give you a form to fill out (it asks for basic info like name, DOB, place of birth, where you live, who you live with, your occupation, if you've ever appeared in court before, and some other things). They will then check whether you've appeared in court before (my boyfriend is divorced, that doesn't count, nor do civil suits. They've talking criminal stuff). The woman said, "yeah, they system shows you've never been in court before, so they'll most likely just drop the charges and you'll pay the court fees.")

So we go into court, and wait for his case to be called. Court started around 9 a.m., and his name was called by the clerk at about 11:30. He went up to the microphone with his documentation in hand. The DA spoke to the judge and said something along the lines of, "So-and-so was pulled over on this date, cop found his registration/license expired etc., he has no prior court appearances, the Commonwealth requests the charges be dropped."

The judge asked my boyfriend if he would agree to have the charges dropped in exchange for paying court costs (for him it was $450, for another person it was $400, for another it was $500). He said yes, the judge asked when he could pay it. He said he could that day, and then the judge told him to wait there while the probation officer wrote up the charges. The probation officer handed him a sheet detailing the $400 with instructions on how to pay, and that was it.

The court doesn't accept personal checks or credit cards, so he took it home, got a money order, and mailed it in.

Don't be scared -- you have nothing to be worried about. Your case is at the bottom of the judge's list of cases to be concerned about, everyone knows it's a simple paperwork mixup/case of forgetfulness, and you're just going to have to pay up. If you need time to pay, the judge will work that out for you also.

It was pretty interesting to watch how court works, so don't let anxiety prevent you from enjoying and learning from the show.

Another tip is to call the probation office ahead of time to ask questions. They'll be happy to help.

Feel free to contact me with any questions!
posted by saffron at 5:40 PM on January 21, 2007

Call the effing prosecutor before you call an attorney. If the two of you can work out a tolerable arrangement (a distinct possibility, as prosecutors often have better things to worry about), you'll save lawyer fees.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:07 PM on January 21, 2007


Er, no. GET A FREE CONSULT FROM A LAWYER is much better advice. Good traffic lawyers will talk to you over the phone, for free, listen to your case and tell you what the next steps should be. Sometimes that involves actually hiring them, sometimes it doesn't. Start calling lawyers until you find one who'll talk to you. Immediately.
posted by mediareport at 10:32 PM on January 21, 2007

Oh yeah: Do not talk to a prosecutor before getting a free consult from a lawyer!
posted by mediareport at 10:33 PM on January 21, 2007

Talking to a prosecutor, before talking to a lawyer? Man, what a terrible, terrible idea.

IANAL, but there is lots of good advice here. Wear the smartest (but not flashiest) suit you have. Get a haircut, be polite and sober, and importnatly (and after talking to a lawyer) say sorry.

And pay off your parking tickets in future.

Or you know, don't get them in the first place (seriously, why do people get tickets? All my American friends here get tickets all the time, but back in Blighty we will do anything we can to avoid them, even if it means walking a few blocks).

posted by tonylord at 9:02 AM on January 22, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the great advice, everybody.

You've all helped me break out of panic mode. No matter what, it looks like the first thing I'm going to need to do is buy a suit (I haven't owned/needed one in years).

I'm going to call around for free consultations and go from there. I never thought about getting an attorney because I assumed that the maximum fines defined by the statutes ($1000) would be far less than the cost of hiring an attorney.

Tonylord: "why do people get tickets?"
Sometimes you run long at an appointment and the meter runs out. Sometimes you misread a sign designating parking hours. It happens.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 10:44 AM on January 22, 2007

Sometimes you run long at an appointment and the meter runs out. Sometimes you misread a sign designating parking hours. It happens.

Yeah, good point! I guess I've been lucky so far.
posted by tonylord at 4:54 PM on January 22, 2007

Response by poster: I don't know if anyone is still following this, but here's an update:

The arraignment was yesterday. Due to my amazing procrastination skills, I never called anyone per the advice above.

I wore a shirt and tie, but it seems that a sweater and jeans would have been fine as well judging by what others were wearing.

The dropped the expired license charge and agreed to dismiss the case if I paid $100 in court costs (there were 3 cases similar to mine - all 3 were handled the same way with the court costs ranging between $100 and $200.

Thanks again for everyone's advice. I'm sorry I didn't put it to proper use, but all did turn out well in the end.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 6:43 AM on February 7, 2007

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