Traffic court's unwanted intervention 

Arbitrary fees, intimidation and scare tactics all part of the Pre-Trial Intervention Program

On any given day when Atlanta traffic court is in session, you won't find a judge presiding over Courtroom 6A. You will, however, find a lot of confused defendants; a clerk whose singular purpose appears to be instructing said defendants to sit down and shut up; and, until recently, a brash prosecutor by the name of Shemia Francisco barking unexplained orders at her befuddled audience.

Francisco is a lawyer, as she's sure to remind the traffic offenders sitting before her, but she's also something of a salesperson, and the product she's hawking is the city solicitor's Traffic Pre-Trial Intervention Program.

Her salty sales pitch goes something like this: By paying a "fee," a defendant can skip appearing before a judge and avoid the points on his license that come with pleading guilty and Francisco will make his ticket disappear. "I'll set it on fire," she says, dramatically comparing it to the car-fire scene in Waiting to Exhale.

The fees that Francisco doles out — she decides on the spot what each defendant will pay — seem all but arbitrary, and her courtroom manner is almost comically intimidating. Perhaps that's because the solicitor's office has an incentive to get people to participate: The fees collected are used to fund the program itself. Unbeknownst to defendants, they're effectively being railroaded into writing checks to the solicitor's office.

When contacted by CL two days after a reporter had watched Francisco in action, City Solicitor Raines Carter said he'd already reacted to complaints about Francisco's courtroom conduct by assigning a different prosecutor to present the program. He seemed troubled by the suggestion that people were being charged different fees for the same offense. "Yeah, we've got to find out what's going on there," he said.

Carter, however, failed to return subsequent phone calls or respond to follow-up questions submitted by e-mail.

During a recent afternoon session in Courtroom 6A, few people seem entirely sure why they've been diverted from the courtrooms to which they were originally assigned. People who've been selected to participate in the Traffic Pre-Trial Intervention Program are sent to 6A before seeing a judge and with little explanation. "I think we're here because we're pleading guilty?" a young woman wearing a tight ponytail says, half telling, half asking.

"Just take a seat and the solicitor will come in and explain everything to you," the clerk announces, presumably to discourage anyone else from approaching her and asking what the hell's going on, as several people have.

After about an hour of waiting, Francisco appears and proceeds to break down the audience like a drill sergeant with a batch of new recruits. In a rapid-fire style that blends humor with paranoia, she chides her listeners for appearing nervous, accuses them of making her job difficult by being "stressed," and warns them not to ask questions or prevent her from "doing what I need to do."

"Everybody in here is being given an opportunity," she says, eyeballing the crowd confrontationally, despite the fact everyone is, ostensibly, cooperating. "If I can get everybody in this room to do what I'm asking them to do — and I mean everybody — I'm going to dismiss your ticket. I don't know what else to say. I don't know if y'all don't like the word dismissed. I don't know if there's a problem with that word. You do what I ask you to do, and I'm gonna dismiss your tickets."

To at least one defendant in the courtroom, a man charged with speeding, Francisco's program smacks of payola. He whispers, "You couldn't pay off the police to get rid of your ticket because that would be bribery — but I guess you can pay off [the solicitor]."

Despite the hard-sell pitch, the program is, at least in theory, not a bad deal for defendants. By paying a fee that's statutorily mandated not to exceed $300 and, in some cases, agreeing to attend a defensive driving course, participants have their charges tossed out. They won't incur points on their licenses, won't pay court costs, and they even have 45 days in which to pay the fee, without the threat of probation if they can't immediately fork over the money. And, by dismissing cases against minor and first-time offenders, the program presumably takes the load off thinly spread judges.

What's troublesome, however, is the way it's administered. For instance, the fee a defendant is required to pay is left almost entirely to the discretion of the solicitor on duty. Also, defendants are told they're not permitted to have their lawyers present — a seeming violation of their constitutional rights — because there will be "no negotiating," although lawyers who do come into the room are not ejected. And, thanks to an ordinance passed just this year, all fees collected through the program go back into the program itself, fueling a self-perpetuating machine.

According to Carter, the program has been available "sporadically" since 2008 and was initially created to promote safe driving and to prevent recidivism. "The program is designed to provide an alternative to prosecuting offenders on traffic laws," he says. Which means the question of guilt or innocence becomes irrelevant. But in prosecutor Francisco's courtroom, the implied message is that most of the people seated before her are better off accepting her offer than going before a judge.

"Those misdemeanor offenses that you consider not too big a deal are punishable by up to 12 months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines," she warns.

Defendants are given the option to return to their original courtrooms to see the judge — although, after waiting an hour and then sitting through Francisco's speech, there's no guarantee court will still be in session — but most stick around.

Three people CL spoke with as they left courtroom 6A paid wildly different fees — ranging from $100 to $235 — for having expired tags. Carter explains that the discrepancies might be due to additional charges they neglected to mention, and insists the program is not a shakedown. "Our goal is to make the fee less than what a fine would be [in court]. But I want to make it clear to my prosecutors that we don't want to get into price-gouging," he says with a nervous laugh.

Carter says there's a sheet that details what fee is recommended for what offense, but he concedes that, thus far, the fees have been "within that solicitor's discretion." CL requested a copy of the fee guidelines, but it was never sent.

Later this month, Carter says, the Traffic Pre-Trial Intervention Program is set to relaunch with no one giving the pitch. Defendants will instead be given an informational brochure and will listen to a recording explaining the program. "It's been confusing," Carter admits. "We want to encourage people to say 'I got a fair shake [by participating].' We don't want people coming down here and saying it was an absolute nightmare."

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