Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Harsh lessons learned in court

Defending self not like on TV

August 7, 2005

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It didn't work like it does on television.

Lawrence resident John Lindsey stood behind the podium in the courtroom and faced the police officer who was on the witness stand. Lindsey was about to launch a strategy to get the officer to change the testimony he had just given.

Lindsey reached deep into the bag of Perry Mason moments.

"You're under oath, and you're telling me this?" Lindsey asked.

But somehow, here in the world of reality, the climactic moment that always appeared in TV land slipped away. The officer simply said "yes."

Oh well, maybe you have to be a real lawyer to pull that one off. A lawyer, Lindsey is not. He's actually Dr. John Lindsey, a Lawrence anesthesiologist. But for about 30 minutes Thursday morning he was acting as his own attorney, defending himself in the city's Municipal Court. Lindsey had decided to fight his speeding tickets by going to trial.

And for anyone else thinking about taking a similar path, Lindsey said it is not that difficult. No reams of legal documents to file or even heavy strategic thinking to do.


Bill Muggy, general manager and owner of Jayhawk Bookstore, stocks his shelves Friday evening at the store. On Aug. 4, Muggy defended himself in Municipal Court on a city-issued citation for a violation of the city's sign code.

Bill Muggy, general manager and owner of Jayhawk Bookstore, stocks his shelves Friday evening at the store. On Aug. 4, Muggy defended himself in Municipal Court on a city-issued citation for a violation of the city's sign code.

"I don't really have any trepidation about it," Lindsey said before his case came up. "I'm just going to explain my side to the judge, and let him make a decision. That will be it."

Tips for success

Jerry Little, the city's lead prosecutor at Municipal Court, said the court has about four to five trials per week, most involving disputes over a speeding, parking or traffic ticket. Little said in the vast majority of those cases, people defend themselves.

People can defend themselves in other cases, though, too. For example, Bill Muggy, owner of the Jayhawk Bookstore, on Thursday defended himself against a violation of the city's sign code. The court basically will let anyone defend themselves, but if the case involves the possibility of jail time, they must sign a waiver acknowledging that they refused the right to counsel.

People who want to take a ticket to trial simply call the prosecutor's office and proclaim their intention. The office sets a trial date. Or people can show up to court on the date indicated on the back of the ticket. At that appearance, the ticket holder may only enter a plea of not guilty. The trial won't happen until a few weeks later.

Once at trial, Little said defendants don't have to worry about knowing all the legal protocol.

"We're fairly lax in following the rules of evidence," Little said. "If you just want to tell your side of the story, we let you do that. We won't make a lot of legal objections. We want to give everybody their day in court. They shouldn't feel intimidated."

Usually, the main part of a person's defense is telling their side of the story. All that involves is being sworn in and telling the judge what you want him to know. But Little reminds people that once you start giving testimony, you've opened yourself up to cross-examination by prosecutors.

Defendants also can ask questions of any witness prosecutors call, such as the police officer who made the traffic stop.

Little's main suggestion for those defending themselves is to write out questions ahead of time to help avoid nervousness or losing a train of thought. And, be sure to ask legitimate questions.

"Saying to an officer 'I really wasn't going 40 mph, was I,' is not going to work," Little said.

One other big tip to remember is that the prosecutor's office must provide you any information they have about the case, if you ask for it. That means defendants should always ask for a copy of the officer's notes, a police report and video of the traffic stop. Several Lawrence police cars now have devices that record video and audio of a traffic stop.

A trial can be worth a person's time. City prosecutors win far more cases than they lose, though the office doesn't keep track of its winning percentage.

"We don't win them all, I can tell you that," Little said. "If I think we might lose, I will try to plea bargain as much as possible."

Make a deal

Ah, plea bargain. Those are two words anyone with a ticket should know. For people who don't want to go to trial, there's plenty of opportunities to make a deal in Municipal Court.

The most popular option in Municipal Court is a practice that prosecutors have of letting people with a reasonably good driving record pay double, triple or quadruple the regular fine - depending on the circumstances - to have a speeding ticket or traffic ticket reduced to a nonmoving violation.

Nonmoving violations don't show up on a driving record, which are used by insurance companies to set premium rates.

Another good piece of information to know is that payment plans are available. Little said people can contact his office about setting up a reasonable time to pay a fine - sometimes a couple of months or more.

"The primary thing is to come in and see us and talk to us," said Little, who said people need to bring a copy of their ticket when talking to a prosecutor. "We generally try to work something out that makes everybody reasonably happy."

But if you are hoping to go to Little's office and simply talk him into dismissing the ticket, that's unlikely. Little said people need to realize how a deal works - both sides give a little.

"If they just come in and want it dismissed, generally my only option is to take it to trial," Little said. "I don't dismiss cases without hearing both sides in a trial."

The worst thing a defendant can do though, Little said, is just hope the ticket goes away or gets lost in the system. Not showing up for a court date usually results in a bench warrant. That means the next time you have contact with the police, you will have to come up with several hundred dollars in bond money to avoid going to county jail for a few days.

"The worst thing they can ever do is not come to court or not call us," Little said. "A little $60 ticket can turn into a $300 ticket in a matter of seconds. Even if you have no money and even if you are as guilty as sin, come to court and we'll work with you."

From doctor to lawyer

As for Dr. Lindsey, his day in court might pay off. He argued that the two speeding tickets he received were unjustified because he was on his way to emergency surgery at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

Municipal Court Judge Randy McGrath said there was a provision in the law that essentially allows people to break the law if they are doing so to save a life. Usually, McGrath rules immediately after both sides rest their case. But because of the unusual circumstances with Lindsey's tickets, McGrath said he would have to research the law and deliver a written ruling in about a week.

Lindsey said he'll be unhappy if he loses, but said he had no regrets about going through the process.

"I'm still glad I did it," Lindsey said. "I thought I had information that the judge needed to hear."

Comments

MikeM 9 years, 8 months ago

I was lucky enough to bet a speeding citation in the Lawrence court system under self representation. What I didn't know was that you need to revert all court costs back to the city if your found not guilty. You must request this from the judge at the time of your trial.

MikeM 9 years, 8 months ago

I was lucky enough to beat a speeding citation in the Lawrence court system under self representation. What I didn't know was that you need to revert all court costs back to the city if your found not guilty. You must request this from the judge at the time of your trial.

jayhawks71 9 years, 8 months ago

Good to know about the DOUBLE, TRIPLE, QUADRUPLE options of getting tickets "reduced" to non-moving violations. Gives more steam to the fact that tickets aren't about law enforcement, they are about $$$$. If I offer a cop 50 bucks to look the other way, that's a bribe. When you pay the city 'extra' that's the process. Sad.

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