Traffic victims need to step up
Very few take the time to go to court, resulting in many charges being tossed out
In the wild kingdom of Traffic Court, a “CW” is the rarest of birds — you can be in court all morning and never spot one.
“CW” is courthouse shorthand for “complaining witness.” If someone’s driving like a goof and rear-ends your car or runs you over, the ticket will likely get thrown out unless you appear in court to make your complaint.
Imagine a packed courtroom, with a crowd of slouchy, grouchy people dressed in jeans and grubby novelty T-shirts, lined up before the bench. The judge and attorneys talk fast to work through the line. Here’s some sample dialogue:
Judge: Sir-you-chargedwith-failure-to-reducespeed-and-striking-anothervehicle-at-the-corner-ofPulaski-n-Irving-in-the-cityof-Chicago. Attorney, is the CW in court? Prosecutor: No, judge. Judge: Case dismissed. Be more careful next time.
So where are all the complaining witnesses?
If a police officer did not see the traffic violation that led to an accident, he’s not the witness. He collects the information from the people involved and writes the ticket. The victim has to go to court to make the charge stick.
But most witnesses in traffic cases skip court, probably because in most cases the person who hit them took care of the property damage or injury through insurance, according to Cook County Circuit Court Judge Walter Williams, supervising judge of the 1st District Traffic Court, which covers Chicago. Williams said judges find this disappointing, especially if there was a serious injury. He said the judge may continue a case to give the state’s attorney another chance to bring in a witness.
“If there’s an injury, we want the complainant to be there,” Williams said. “If there’s property damage, we want them to be there.” But there’s nothing the court can do if the witness won’t show up
“Some people will pursue it to the end,” Williams said. “We wish all of them would.”
Defense attorney James Dimeas said he sees judges continue cases to allow attorneys to bring in witnesses more frequently outside Cook County. “In Cook County, there are too many cases on the calls,” said Dimeas, a partner with Legal Defenders P.C. Chicago courts alone review up to 5,000 moving violations a day.
Ten years ago, Chicago Police officers wouldn’t always show up in Traffic Court either, but the Police Department now requires officers to appear in court if they issued a ticket, said Dimeas. Citizen witnesses are still rare.
“When I see people show up at Traffic Court, it’s usually when the other person’s insurance company is denying the claim, or if there was something more than a traffic accident that happened, if there were nasty words exchanged,” said Dimeas.
Dimeas said witnesses might find it hard to take the time off work to go to court, especially in today’s economy.
There are exceptions — witnesses who pursue a complaint out of principle. That was the case for Michael Ochoa, a highway worker who was run over by a van that was allegedly speeding around another car stopped at an expressway ramp traffic signal. Ochoa had been checking the signal.
The van’s driver, Tony Lampkin, wasn’t initially charged, but Ochoa said he pestered the Illinois State Police, which issued citations more than three weeks after the accident. Ochoa went to all three court dates.
Last week, a judge found Lampkin guilty of reckless driving and sentenced him to a $500 fine and eight hours of traffic school. Ochoa, who suffered minor injuries and is not filing a civil suit, was satisfied with the sentence.
“I wanted. him to be prosecuted to the extent that this will change his driving behavior,” Ochoa said.
Dimeas says people should be complaining witnesses if they believe the person who hit them is a danger on the road and should suffer a penalty.
“Obviously, you’d like to see people do the right thing,” Dimeas said. “But it’s sort of like voting — how do you force somebody to vote?”
One reason why victims might skip court is that the penalties for traffic violations are rarely severe, said Margo O’Hara, spokeswoman for the Active Transportation Alliance, which advocates for pedestrians and bicyclists. “People may wonder if someone’s only going to pay a $100 fine, is it worth taking off work?” O’Hara said.
If someone is killed, police gather evidence and interview witnesses. But even then, the penalty might seem light compared with the fate of the victim, O’Hara said. She cited the case of Cordell Curtis, who in 2008 struck and killed Amanda Annis, a 24-year-old teacher riding her bicycle. Curtis was convicted of speeding, running a red light, failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident, and negligent driving. His penalty was court costs and 64 hours of community service.
“In order to actually get any jail time, you basically have to prove the person was running someone down,” O’Hara said. “There’s such a huge gap in the consequences.”
Train buffs can take a special trip to cover almost every line of the CTA L system, plus non-revenue and yard trackage, on Sunday, March 28, for the Illinois Railway Museum’s 2010 “Snowflake Special.”
The $42 trip is a fund-raiser to secure indoor storage space for IRM’s cream-and-green 2000 series L cars from the 1960s.
The trip starts at 9 a.m. from Rosemont on the Blue Line, will stop for lunch in the Loop, and finish back at Rosemont about 6 p.m.
The four-car train will consist of the CTA’s oldest cars in revenue service, 2200 series cars built by Budd in 1969-1970 and scheduled for replacement.
Of course, you can ride the entire L system by yourself for $2.25 (I’ve done it — it’s fun). But the IRM trip includes current and retired CTA employees who will teach you about the system. Go to www.irm.org for more information or call (815) 923-4000.
A driver who causes an accident might go unpunished if the CW, or complaining witness, fails to appear in court.