Judges know economy has put drivers in bind

An elderly couple approached the podium in Suzan Baucum's courtroom and quickly launched into the excuses: They did nothing wrong. The police officer stopped them for no reason. They can't afford a fine, big or small.

The woman steadied her elderly husband as they attempted to continue, but Baucum already had cut them off. She had heard enough.

"I've dismissed the case," Baucum said. "There is no probable cause."

And so it went, the couple who was ticketed only for failing to wear seat belts shook their heads as they departed the courtroom, clearly still confused about the judge's ruling.

Next up was a motorist cited for speeding and also failing to wear a seat belt. He too began explaining the circumstances that led him to being pulled over, adding that, "I was wearing my seat belt until the officer stopped me." Uh huh.

Baucum listened for a couple minutes and reduced the citation to a parking infraction. The man appeared flustered when she explained the fine still hovered around $200, but he avoided traffic school. He promised to pay it off in two weeks.

"How about 60 days?" Baucum asked.

Whuh? What is going on here?

At the suggestion of a court official, I attended the traffic citation proceedings before Baucum on Wednesday. I expected to wince when motorists were levied with hefty fines or cringe when drivers under warrant were hauled off to jail. None of that happened.

I expected ridiculous excuses, but most were along the lines of an elderly gentleman who was pulled over for having a defective windshield. Baucum asked if he planned to get it fixed and his response was, well, pretty much reflective of the times: "I'm unemployed. I'm not planning on doing anything until I get a job."

A few readers have written in convinced that cops were stopping motorists for petty violations that, prior to the economy veering south, were largely ignored. Conspiracy theorists suggested that law enforcement officers had a quota they had to meet, a mandate by state officials doing whatever possible to dig Nevada out of its financial hole.

I typically dismiss such theories, but grew a bit suspicious when three friends were pulled over in the same week. One had a small amount of smoke coming from her exhaust, another had a small crystal hanging from the rearview mirror and the third was cited for dice dangling in her windshield.

Not to outright torpedo the theory, but these figures sort of snuff out the cynics: According to the Las Vegas Municipal Court, 163,609 traffic cases were filed this year compared to 189,276 filed in 2009.

Even if it was true that cops were more ticket-happy these days, that doesn't mean all the citations are going anywhere. Baucum made it pretty clear that she will dismiss a case she deems meritless.

After Wednesday's proceedings, Baucum said it is not her intent to push motorists further into debt. She gets it: What's the point of nailing someone with additional fines when they are in court because they couldn't afford to pay their fines in the first place?

For motorists who have warrants out for blowing off fines or failing to appear in court, a judge will provide few options. But court officials seem to be keenly aware of the economic crisis and its effects on motorists. They appear to be more concerned about fairness and residents' pocketbooks than the state's budget outlook.

Traffic court judges recently lowered the minimum monthly payments from $100 to $50, and plenty of motorists have taken advantage. Here is a not-so-big surprise: More violators are opting for community service. It's an ideal solution for people who are out of work and short of funds.

According to the court, 239,978 work-hours were logged in 2009. That figure jumped to 355,850 this year, an increase of 48 percent.

It was comforting to learn that some in the court system are compassionate. If you get a ticket and take care of it, your bank account isn't going to take a major hit.

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call Adrienne Packer at 702-387-2904, or send an e-mail to roadwarrior@reviewjournal .com. Please include your phone number.