The Mesa police officer who ticketed Donald Salter for speeding recounted a detailed conversation the two men had as the citation was being written.
Salter had said the Audi SUV he was driving was new and had a turbocharger, a device that boosts performance. Salter admitted he was not used to a vehicle with so much power, and that’s why he’d accelerated so fast, the officer said in describing the conversation during the trial in Mesa Municipal Court three months later.
There was a problem though. Salter’s Audi did not have a turbocharger, nor was it particularly new. He’d bought it several months before.
There were other problems with the officer’s testimony. He gave the wrong date of the incident, which occurred in February 2013, a month later than the officer testified. He admitted he’d taken no contemporaneous notes on the night of the traffic stop, and was recounting the details only from memory and the information on the citation.
The officer couldn’t remember which lane Salter was in prior to the stop. He also did not give details as to how he determined how fast Salter was going, or about the traffic conditions, both key elements in determining whether a person’s speed was reasonable and prudent under the law.
Despite the contradictions and vagaries, the officer’s testimony was enough for the Mesa city court judge to convict Salter of speeding.
Salter appealed. A Maricopa County Superior Court judge overturned the conviction, concluding the prosecution had failed to prove its case in city court.
“The judge seemed to have made his mind up before he even walked into the courtroom,” Salter said of his trial in Mesa Municipal Court. “He seemed to just be there to determine that whatever the officer said was going to be fine, and he was going to enforce the verdict against me before hearing all the details.
“It kind of seemed like he had his script already made and he was going to side with the officer before hearing anything. It seemed like nothing that I would have said to him would have swayed him. It was like a decision had been made by the officer and he wasn’t going to do anything but rubber-stamp it.”
Salter’s successful appeal is a rarity. Few people are willing to spend thousands of dollars to hire a lawyer to appeal convictions that typically result in fines of a few hundred dollars. That is especially true for traffic citations, which are considered civil offenses rather than criminal misdemeanors, which also are heard in city courts.
In the five-year period ending in 2016, more than 3.7 million cases were filed in municipal courts throughout Maricopa County, including traffic citations, parking tickets, and criminal misdemeanors, according to the state Office of the Courts. In a slightly different five-year time frame ending in 2017, only about 1,500 cases from municipal court were appealed to Maricopa County Superior Court.
Of those, the city court verdict was reversed 127 times, county superior court data shows.
Even at that, 61 of the reversals favored the prosecution, typically because the lower-court judge made an erroneous procedural ruling before or during a trial, or in sentencing, sparking an appeal by the city. Only 27 of the reversals favored the defendants. The rest of the cases involved orders of protection or injunctions against harassment, which largely stem from disputes between individuals and are handled in city courts.
Appeals court judges have limited ability to overturn a city court’s verdict under state laws, court rules, and legal precedents. They can only reverse a conviction if they find the trial court erred on a question of law or rendered a decision that is plainly contrary to the evidence, and that any mistake “was so important that it likely affected the outcome of the case.”
In an appeal from city court, no witnesses are called and no new evidence is presented.
Appeals court judges are not allowed to “second guess” a city court’s determination as to which witnesses are the most credible, according to state court precedent dating back to territorial days. Determining witness credibility is the sole discretion of the trial court judge.
“Where a decision is made on that basis, it is truly discretionary and we will not substitute our judgment for that of the trial judge,” the Arizona Supreme Court said in a 1983 case, explaining the near-absolute discretion of trial courts to decide which witnesses to believe. “We will not second-guess.”
That standard of review makes it almost impossible to overturn a city court verdict, according to several lawyers interviewed by the Goldwater Institute.
“The reality is the judges in the superior court reviewing those decisions are not going to overturn them based on the standard of review,” defense lawyer Dennis Wilenchik told the Goldwater Institute.
City court verdicts cannot be appealed beyond superior courts unless a law, fine, or tax is being challenged.
That is particularly troublesome because city court judges answer to city councils, not to voters.
City court judges are hired and retained, and can be fired, by the councils. Unlike judges at every other level of the judiciary in Arizona, city judges never face voters in elections.
That leaves them vulnerable to pressure from council members, police, prosecutors, and other city officials, according to a Goldwater Institute investigative report, City Court: Money Pressure and Politics Make It Tough to Beat the Rap, published in July 2017.
In Salter’s case, Commissioner Myra Harris of Maricopa County Superior Court determined the prosecution failed to prove how fast Salter was going, how the officer determined Salter’s speed, and whether he was driving in an unsafe manner, all critical elements in establishing the offense.
She did note the police officer’s conflicting testimony, saying that “he never demonstrated his recollection of the events was accurate.” However, Harris did not cite that as a reason for overturning the conviction.
Randall Winter’s case was even more basic since there is no dispute about any of the facts that led to his challenge of a parking ticket in Scottsdale Municipal Court. His successful appeal to superior court is doubly unique, not only because he won, but because he even bothered to appeal a finding of guilt for a parking ticket.
Winter had pulled into a restaurant on North 73rd Street in Scottsdale, but the parking lot was full, so he drove back out and parked on the street.
Nothing indicated parking was prohibited there. Not a “No Parking” sign, painted curb, or any other fixture such as a fire hydrant. There was a sign farther down the street, visible for traffic approaching from the south. But since he pulled out of the parking lot, which is north of the sign, there was no way for him to see it.
Yet when he returned to his car, Winter found a citation on his windshield stating he’d parked in a no-parking zone.
At his trial in Scottsdale Municipal Court, Winter showed photos of the section of street where he was parked, proving it was devoid of any prohibition on parking. It didn’t matter. The judge acknowledged the “No Parking” sign was improperly posted but found him guilty anyway.
“Rubber-stamp is the right word,” Winter said of the verdict. “She was flat-out rude. She wouldn’t listen to me, didn’t care: I should have known it was no parking. Boom. Done. Guilty. Out of here.”
In her six-page reversal of the conviction, Commissioner Harris of Maricopa County Superior Court found the Scottsdale judge disregarded her own finding that there was no proper posting of a parking prohibition.
Winter said he felt the Scottsdale judge in his case was just doing the bidding of the city, and that it didn’t matter what evidence he presented of his innocence.
“The system down there, it was ridiculous,” he said. “I felt like I was in front of a council member. She did not act as if she was a judge. There was nothing straightforward or honest about it.”
Another defendant whose conviction in city court was later overturned on appeal is Jason Gibbs, owner of a plumbing company in Mesa.
In October 2011, a photo radar camera in El Mirage captured a speeding vehicle driven by one of Gibbs’s employees. Even though Gibbs was not driving, he received the photo radar citation because the vehicle was registered to him, which is a common occurrence, he said.
Gibbs followed the standard procedure of mailing a declaration that he was not the driver to Redflex Traffic Systems, the private company operating the photo radar cameras for the city. Normally, that is enough to have a photo radar ticket dismissed.
But Redflex officials maintained they never received the information.
In June 2013—16 months after he thought he’d resolved the ticket—the El Mirage Municipal Court entered a default judgment declaring Gibbs responsible for the ticket.
Gibbs learned of the judgment when he received a notice that his driver’s license had been suspended because of the unpaid photo radar citation.
“The thing for me that is most frustrating is that they suspend your license, and you have no idea that you’re driving on a suspended license until you get the letter in the mail,” Gibbs said. “You are already driving on a suspended license, which if you own a company, your liability is huge, more than just a normal driver.”
If you fail to appear for a civil traffic hearing, the standard procedure is for the judge to enter a default judgment that you are responsible—the civil traffic equivalent of guilty—and order the entire amount of any fines due. The court will also notify the state’s motor vehicle division (MVD), which will automatically suspend your license.
Driving on a suspended license is a criminal misdemeanor, meaning if you are stopped again you will face arrest and criminal charges, even if the underlying offense is a minor traffic ticket.
In 2016, the state suspended the driver’s licenses of 74,001 people for failing to appear or pay a fine in municipal court, according to records from the state MVD.
Gibbs filed a motion to set aside the default judgment, arguing he was clearly not the driver. The city court judge refused to even schedule a hearing to allow him to present his evidence.
On appeal, the judgment was overturned in Maricopa County Superior Court because the city court “abused its discretion.”
That verdict came more than two years after the initial citation was issued. The whole episode soured Gibbs on city court.
“The El Mirage judge, I did not get a fair shake at all,” he said. “And they make the process extremely difficult to get your license back because they hold all the power. It was not fair or impartial.
“They would not allow me to even prove my case, even though I had the other guy’s driver’s license and was able to prove who the person was. They just didn’t care.”
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