Thursday, March 5, 2009
7 News Investigations: Ticket Talk
Tonight, a Seven News Investigation exposes an unfair practice that is taking place everyday in traffic court. Some officers are sending secret signals to judges, and your case could be affected. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero has discovered that drivers have no idea this Ticket Talk is taking place between police and judges.
WSVN -- It's the point no motorist wants to see, but when an officer pulls you over, there could be something extra written on the ticket, that, until now, the public has never seen.
Seven News has discovered drawings like these on the back of some traffic tickets issued in Broward County. We're told officers draw a smiley face for a good attitude. A frowning face for a bad attitude, and if an officer thinks you're a real jerk he might draw this...
Mark Gold: "And to the court and to him that means flaming."
Ted Hollander: "The people who come into court with those notes on the back of the ticket have no idea that that accusation has been made."
Carmel Cafiero: "This is an original ticket, and this is the front of the ticket, and that's what you get, but attached to that, although not separated, here is the other part of the ticket, which you don't see."
That part of the ticket contains the drawings. It can also include additional notes detailing the officer's version of what happened, and that is what is sent to the judge or magistrate.
Magistrate J.L. Lara: "I'm going to treat everybody fairly."
The problem is when a motorist goes to court, he or she has no idea the magistrate has the extra information.
Shurronda Barker: "I said, 'No, sir, I came off Commercial Boulevard and made a U-turn.'"
Shurronda Barker decided to fight her ticket in court. She even brought in pictures to try to prove she did not make an improper turn.
Magistrate Maria Varsallone: "I feel the state has met its burden of proof."
She lost her case. She had no idea the magistrate had this, a copy of her ticket with a frowning face, until I showed it to her.
Carmel Cafiero: "Did you have a bad attitude?"
Shurronda Barker: "No bad attitude at all."
Carmel Cafiero: "But don't you think looking at this, the judge might have thought otherwise?"
Shurronda Barker: "Exactly."
Carmel Cafiero: "Do you think it's unfair?"
Shurronda Barker: "It's unfair. Absolutely unfair."
Mark Gold: "Your honor, could I have the ticket in the court file please?"
Ticket attorney Mark Gold challenged the practice after we asked him about this ticket issued to one of his clients for running a red light. On the back, a frowning face. BSO deputy Mark Schaffer wrote the ticket.
Mark Gold: "What does a smiley face or an unhappy face mean?"
Deputy Mark Shaffer: "No problems. Not combative, just pleasant."
Mark Gold: "A smiley face and an unhappy face means?"
Deputy Mark Shaffer: "Somebody wasn't happy to get their ticket."
Gold asked the magistrate to dismiss the case based on improper communication.
Mark Gold: "Now, how can a judge be impartial if they've already heard one side of the story, and they heard that the officer said that this person was uncooperative or had a bad attitude?"
The magistrate wouldn't drop the case but decided to hold off on making a ruling.
Maria Varsallone: "I'm going to do further research on that issue and then come to a decision."
Nova Southeastern ethics professor Bob Jarvis didn't have to research the issue. He says any first year law student could tell you this practice is wrong.
Carmel Cafiero: "So how is this going on everyday in Broward County courts?"
Bob Jarvis: "I frankly don't have an answer for you. It is shocking to me and very surprising."
Even chief judge Victor Tobin was surprised when we told him about the practice.
Judge Victor Tobin: "It's not good. We shouldn't be doing it."
As a result, Judge Tobin says, in the future, officers cannot put faces on tickets, and they will have to keep their notes separate from the tickets, so the court doesn't see them.
Judge Victor Tobin: "It will not continue in my opinion as it is now because I'm going to tell them, don't do it."
As for the tickets currently making their way through the courts, the chief judge says he'll make sure defendants know if there's Ticket Talk on their citations.