Traf­fic vic­tims need to step up

Very few take the time to go to court, re­sult­ing in many charges be­ing tossed out

Chicago Sun-Times - - The Ride -

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.

James Dimeas

PI­O­NEER PRESS

A driver who causes an ac­ci­dent might go un­pun­ished if the CW, or com­plain­ing wit­ness, fails to ap­pear in court.

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