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Court a worthy stop for some drivers

It's traffic court day, and Deputy Peter Ciucci is wheeling and dealing in the hallway outside County Judge Peyton Hyslop's courtroom.

"Pay the ticket; no points," Ciucci explains to Enrique Lopez, 18, of Spring Hill, who got a ticket from Ciucci in October for disregarding a traffic device.

The offer _ one proffered by a handful of Hernando County sheriff's deputies and Brooksville police officers to about a dozen people contesting traffic tickets on Tuesday _ is essentially this: If the person forgoes his or her moment in court, he or she can have the adjudication withheld on the ticket, with court costs equal to the traffic-ticket fine. No points are assessed against the driver's license. The judge, who encourages such deals, must sign off on the agreement and will say beforehand if he will accept it.

If you decide to plead your case before Hyslop, Ciucci warns Lopez, the wait might be a couple of hours.

"I don't want anything on my record," Lopez said.

Lopez hesitantly says he will take the deal, but after mulling it over, he changed his mind.

"I drew a diagram for the judge," he said, "that proves I didn't run that light."

After hearing from Lopez and Ciucci, Hyslop took the case under advisement.

"It's a gamble," said Lopez, who now awaits the judge's decision.

In many ways, it's a gamble for anyone who decides to fight a traffic ticket.

But a review by the Times of people who contested non-criminal traffic tickets in Hernando County over the past five years shows they fared pretty well.

Only one in five came away as bad as they went in. Those were the people who were found guilty in traffic court.

That doesn't mean the rest walked away scot-free. About a third of the time, those who contested tickets had adjudication withheld. Again, that essentially means points are withheld, but court costs are typically set about the same rate as what the ticket would have cost. Another 39 percent of the tickets were dismissed. Just under 10 percent of the alleged offenders were found innocent.

The first thing to note is that only a small percentage of people who are ticketed contest their citations _ about three in 100. Those who do contest will end up in Judge Hyslop's courtroom on the third floor of the Hernando County Government Center in Brooksville.

The business of sheriff's deputies and Brooksville police officers mediating cases in the 40 minutes before traffic court is standard practice in Hernando County. Drivers with otherwise clean driving records, a good attitude and a relatively minor infraction are usually offered some type of a deal, deputies said. The deputies said such deals can soften the blow of a ticket but still accomplish the goal of modifying bad driving habits. It also can expedite the court process.

The exceptions, said Ciucci, are people with bad driving records. Those people haven't learned their lesson, he said.

Amid the Let's Make a Deal session prior to traffic court last week, no police officer called Robert Russell's name. The difference: His ticket was written by a trooper with the Florida Highway Patrol.

"We don't get involved in that stuff," said Trooper Rene Garcia, who issued Russell's ticket. "If we plead it out, we plead it out in court."

After a brief hearing, Russell was found guilty of driving 79 mph in a 60 mph zone on U.S. 19.

The different attitudes among departments about leniency are an extension of their ticket-writing philosophies. While sheriff's deputies were more likely to cut speeding drivers a break by downgrading the speed or issuing a less-expensive "disregarding a traffic device" ticket, state troopers generally do not do either.

That doesn't mean people contesting a ticket from a state trooper do not get adjudications withheld. Those are up to Hyslop.

Hyslop said he is apt to withhold adjudication if a person has an otherwise clean driving record. "That ought to be worth something," he said.

In fact, you need not even be present. On Tuesday, Hyslop withheld adjudication on a speeding ticket issued to Ernest Stone of Maryland, who wrote Hyslop a letter saying he didn't want to get any points.

Another woman, Natasha Clayton of Tallahassee, who was clocked speeding on State Road 50 by a state trooper in an airplane, got adjudication withheld and a reduced fine after she produced an affidavit from a mechanic showing the speedometer in the car she was driving was off by 11 mph.

About 39 percent of the tickets that are contested are dismissed. Most are dismissed before the hearing date by the officer who wrote the ticket. Sometimes it's a matter of an officer rethinking a ticket he issued. Often, they are dismissed because the driver faces more serious charges from the same traffic stop, and the lesser ones are dropped. Hyslop said officers sometimes dismiss contested tickets because the case has holes or because they simply don't want to go to court.

Some are dismissed by the officer just before court. That's what happened with Robert Vann of Spring Hill, who explained to Deputy Stephen Klapka that he was unaware the speed had been changed around the construction zone on Spring Hill Drive because he enters it from a midway point.

John Doherty, chairman of the criminal justice department at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., recommended that people who fight traffic tickets approach the officer who wrote the ticket before court starts to try to work out a deal.

"For some reason," Doherty said, "people believe we're not supposed to talk to a cop like that."

There are two other ways tickets can be dismissed. If a police officer does not file the necessary court paperwork for the ticket within five working days, Hyslop will dismiss them. That only happens about once a month, Hyslop said.

Another way is if the officer doesn't show up for court. That happened on Tuesday for Kenneth Morse, who faced a charge of failure to wear a seat belt.

"It can be easy sometimes," Hyslop told Morse, who walked out smiling.

While there are dismissals due to an officer's absence on most traffic ticket court days, Hyslop said, it doesn't happen so often that it's a problem.

Also rare is being found innocent at trial. Less than 10 percent of those who tried their luck at trial walked away with an innocent verdict. Speeders, in particular, were unlikely to beat the rap.

In 1997, for example, 6,188 people got speeding tickets. Only 226 pleaded innocent. Of those, only nine were found innocent.

Hyslop said those found innocent probably were people whose cars were tracked with radar and there may have been some confusion about which car was being targeted.

No one in traffic court on Tuesday had an attorney, but data suggests those who do hire lawyers fare considerably better.

In fact, of the 446 people who pleaded innocent and showed up in court with an attorney over the past five years, 70 percent had their tickets dismissed, compared to just 32 percent for those who went without a lawyer.

"The fact is, a lot of officers don't show up for these things," lawyer Chip Harp said. "You play the percentages. Unless you really teed off the officer, they may forget to show up. I show up."

Officers also may be reluctant to face an attorney in court, Harp said.

Perhaps the biggest reason for such a high dismissal rate, lawyer James Dysart said, is that people tend to hire an attorney only when they face criminal traffic violations, such as driving while under the influence, which might have several other citations, like speeding or careless driving, attached to it. Oftentimes, the lesser charges are dismissed.

But consider, people without representation were four times as likely to be found guilty in court (22.7 percent for those without an attorney, as opposed to 5 percent of those with an attorney).

"If you have an attorney, you hope you get something for it," Judge Hyslop said.

Attorney or no, Hyslop has general advice for people who plan to take tickets to court.

"If you think you're going to fight a ticket, make a few notes right then," he said. "The officers do. It's going to be three months before you get to court. Memories change."

Perhaps most important, Hyslop said, "Don't make something up that didn't happen. Come in and say what actually happened. Don't embellish."