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Drivers fighting tickets — and winning
Special to The Seattle Times
Joseph Ayala got the first speeding ticket seven years ago. Instead of paying it, Ayala took the advice of his boss and hired a lawyer.
The lawyer, Jeannie Mucklestone, got the ticket dismissed. And Ayala has turned to her ever since.
"Jeannie's probably gotten me out of five tickets," said Ayala, a software developer who lives in Sammamish. "The last thing that I would want is five speeding tickets on my record."
More people in Washington are fighting — and beating — traffic tickets than ever before. More than 158,000 traffic charges were dismissed last year, twice as many as a decade ago.
Factoring in the growth in tickets issued, the dismissal rate grew over 10 years from fewer than nine out of every 100 traffic charges in 1996 to more than 13 out of every 100 last year.
There are a lot of reasons for it, but one is the emergence of a cottage industry of sorts: Attorneys like Jeannie Mucklestone and her lawyer brothers, James and John Mucklestone, have created niche practices in the art of getting people out of their tickets. (Traffic infractions are violations such as speeding or running red lights; they do not include parking violations or misdemeanors such as drunken driving.)
• During the traffic stop, accept the ticket without admitting any guilt. A police officer can record an admission on a police report.
• If you're considering fighting a ticket, check the contested box on the ticket and return it within 15 days after receiving the ticket. You can still plead guilty at a later date if you change your mind.
• In court, be firm in your convictions. If you believe you did not commit the violation, say that to the judge.
• Stick with the facts of the case and don't bring up peripheral matters, such as an opinion that the police officer was rude.
• Be respectful and polite.
• Don't ignore the ticket. Fight the violation, pay the fine or ask the court to reduce the fine. Otherwise, your license could be suspended.
Source: Attorney John Mucklestone
"Our clients, if we get their tickets dismissed, they think we're walking on water," John Mucklestone said.
But even attorneys may find it harder to fight tickets this year. Last December, Washington judges changed many rules, a move that has potential to reverse the trend. The changes, which closed some of the procedural loopholes that defendants could take advantage of, went into effect in January.
"There was nobody that went into this with the idea that we would rewrite the rules so that the defense attorneys would get fewer cases dismissed," said King County Judge David Steiner, who chairs the rules committee for the District and Municipal Court Judges' Association.
"But we went rule by rule to determine whether justice was being served and, in many cases, we found that it wasn't."
Jenni Christopher, a researcher at the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said she doesn't know of any analysis that explains the decade of growing dismissal rates: "We don't have any data that directly answers that question as to why."
One likely contributor to the increase is a change in traffic laws passed by the Legislature that went into effect in June 2000, said Kent Municipal Judge Glenn Phillips, a board member of the judges' association.
The change allows motorists to ask a court to erase a moving or nonmoving violation once every seven years — a kind of second chance for drivers to clear their record. If a judge grants the request, the motorist pays a fee to the court and must not commit another offense for up to a year. The violation isn't reported to the state Department of Licensing.
But the number of charges getting dismissed was growing rapidly even before that rule went into effect, according to figures from the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The fact that more people are choosing to fight traffic tickets — nearly 122,000 last year, a 43 percent increase over 1996 — is likely also affecting the increase in dismissals.
While it's not clear why more people are fighting tickets, one thing is clear: More people are hiring lawyers to represent them.
"This is a burgeoning area of practice," said Steiner, who's on the bench in King County District Court in Redmond. "We have some calendars where the majority of [traffic] cases set are for people represented by counsel."
Lawyers have always defended traffic tickets, usually showing up in court for friends or family or doing a favor for a client. But it's become a niche practice for lawyers such as the Mucklestones.
John, Jeannie and James Mucklestone followed their parents into law, joining the family firm of Mucklestone & Mucklestone. When their father got a speeding ticket in Grant County in 1990, he assigned it to John, who got the ticket dismissed.
Over the years, the three siblings fought a few more traffic tickets, mainly for friends and family. Then in 1994, John Mucklestone advertised the service in a local newspaper. The phone has been ringing ever since.
"It just so happened we were three hungry attorneys and we needed to keep busy," he said.
Lawyers' fees for fighting tickets vary; the Mucklestones, who now have separate practices, charge $350 per infraction. Those who choose to just pay the ticket fine may pay anywhere from $101 for speeding or not using a seat belt to $950 for throwing a cigarette from a vehicle.
Those who turn to lawyers to fight tickets are usually concerned about their driving records, Jeannie Mucklestone said. Many are worried that their insurance rates will skyrocket or their insurance will be canceled outright.
"People want me to fight seat-belt tickets because they don't want it sent down [to the Department of Licensing]," she said.
What not to do
Nonlawyers who fight their traffic tickets rarely know the rules of the court, she said, describing a recent mistake she witnessed by a man defending himself.
The judge read a police report into the record and told the driver that the state has to prove the case against him. The judge also told the defendant there wasn't much to the report.
"He should have said, 'I think you should dismiss it — there's not enough there,' " Jeannie Mucklestone said. "And the judge would probably have dismissed it."
Instead, the driver went into a long explanation of what had occurred, filling in all the details that the police report lacked. His testimony provided enough evidence for the judge to uphold the ticket.
Often, defense attorneys get their clients out of speeding tickets over procedural issues. For example, prosecutors are obligated to provide evidence to the defendant, notes James Mucklestone, who now practices in Arlington. Yet some jurisdictions don't have the resources to do that, he said. Skagit County was one such place.
"It became an open secret up there: You request A, B, C and D and you didn't get it, and then it was going to be dismissed," James Mucklestone said.
Skagit County District Attorney Tom Seguine said his office now devotes two law students to handling contested tickets.
"County prosecutors don't have a lot of resources to devote to infractions," Seguine said.
"It's a nagging problem for prosecutors, but given the amount of resources that we have available, we have to make choices."
Traffic lawyers also can get their clients out of tickets by paying attention to deadlines. Police officers must file tickets with the court in a timely manner and courts must set hearings within a certain amount of time. If the deadlines aren't met, traffic lawyers often argue successfully for the case to be dismissed.
But the new rules make that and other procedural moves harder.
Changes by judges
In the past two years, the District and Municipal Court Judges' Association has made a dozen revisions to the court procedural rules, all approved by the state Supreme Court. One change gives more time for police officers to turn in tickets and courts to set hearings.
Another involves a defendant's right to request that the police officer who issued the ticket appear in court. Some defense lawyers in the past would make the request but would bury it several pages deep in documents filed with the court, hoping it would be overlooked. If the police officer didn't appear, some judges would dismiss the case.
Under the new rules, defendants who request a police officer to appear in court must do it on a separate document.
John Mucklestone said he believes the judges went too far in rewriting the rules, but he thinks people will keep fighting their tickets.
"No matter how strict they make the rules ... people who feel like they are wrongly accused will always challenge their tickets," he said.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company