WALL ST.JOURNAL ON US
By ANDREA GERLIN
Staff Reporter to the WALL STREET JOURNAL
When a Dallas policeman nabbed him for driving 55 miles an hour in a 30 mph zone, Ian Katave was guilty.
But the 29-year-old painter worried that paying his ticket might raise his insurance rates. So he turned to a law firm that specializes in fighting traffic tickets, and for $45, the $240 ticket went away.
Opportunities in corporate law may be dwindling, but representing scofflaws in traffic court has potential. More motorists, worried about rising auto insurance rates, are balking at paying big fines even as many municipalities are trying to raise revenue by issuing more tickets. New York City, for instance, put more ticket-writing police on the streets five years ago, and since then the percentage of tickets appealed has jumped to 44% from 34%.
"People are getting smart about tickets," says John Gioffredi, whose Dallas firm employs six full-time lawyers and handles 5,000 traffic infractions a year.
Corporate attorneys have long ridiculed traffic law as a back alley of the profession, but more lawyers are making it a practice. In Dallas 25 to 30 lawyers call traffic law their specialty, up from just a couple in the mid 1980s. While the Manhattan Yellow Pages didn't show any traffic attorneys 10 years ago, today there are about a dozen firms specializing in such cases there, and half of them are listed in the Yellow Pages.
The work is "not exactly what you aspire to," concedes Jeffrey Levine, a NewYork lawyer who wanted to be a corporate attorney. "But I didn't have the correct social pedigree. . ."
Traffic lawyers who often toil without secretaries or even computers, have to be experts in traffic-law minutiae. The errors or loopholes they find eliminate 15% to 20% of clients' tickets. Another 40% of cases are thrown out when the lawyer shows up at municipal court and the police officer doesn't.
* * * Practitioners insist that defending the ticketed is honorable and important. "Simply because an agent of the government says you've committed an act against society doesn't mean you did until you have an opportunity to confront the evidence." says Mr. Levine. "These are rights that we cherish and we uphold."
In a pamphlet for clients, Mr. Giofreddi takes another tack: "There are several procedures available to avoid traffic-ticket convictions, even if the violator is truly guilty of the offense," he writes.
Meanwhile, the auto-insurance industry complains that traffic attorneys are putting back on the streets reckless drivers who haven't paid for violating the law. "The driver thinks he's getting off scot-free, but he's not if he's endangering the lives of other motorists." says Loretta Warders of the Insurance Information Institute in Washington.
Indeed, according to studies by the National Safety Council, excessive speed is a factor in a third of all vehicle accidents resulting in deaths and a fourth of all injury accidents.
Since most traffic infractions are misdemeanors, the work of traffic lawyers goes largely unnoticed. But traffic-lawyer John R. Farris Jr. of Santa Ana, Calif., won fame in 1992. After reading the fine print of a California statute that required traffic-enforcement vehicles to be black and white. Mr. Farris proved his client was ticketed by a Laguna Beach officer driving sky-blue motorcycle. The client's ticket was dismissed and the department repainted its fleet. California legislators have since modified state law. Most days are more like two recent ones in Orange County, when Mr. Farris went to traffic court to handle five cases. As is common, municipal judges let him go ahead of defendants who were representing themselves. The police officers involved didn't show up, so each moving violation was dismissed within a minute of the case being called. "It's a good afternoon," Mr. Farris shrugged.
When they do have to go to trial Mr. Farris and his partner, Mark Sutherland, say they're prepared to challenge the fundamental fairness of the laws and introduce highway engineering surveys as evidence. Though they charge an average of $150 a case in a county where fewer than 5% of tickets are contested, they say their business is up 30% lo 50% this year.
* * * In the case of Mr. Katave, the Dallas painter the officer did appear. But the city was switching to a computer system and the court's copy of the complaint wasn't available. That was a denial of his Sixth Amendment right to be Informed of the nature and cause of the charges against him, says J. Randell Stevens an attorney in Mr. Gioffredi's office.
In most states, 90% of those ticketed pay their tines and move on. So many traffic lawyers build business by focusing on people who drive a lot, such as truckers cab drivers and salespeople.
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Excerpted from the Wall Street Journal, 12/18/95, page B1