Back in November, I got a ticket at IAD when I was picking up my parents. I felt it was completely unfair and the officer was very rude, so even though it was only $40, I decided to contest it. Part of it was also a curiosity of that whole process. I called in about three weeks after receiving the ticket, when I was sure that I wanted to go forward with contesting my citation. The gentleman let me know the next available slot was more than a month out from that point – Feb 3rd at 1:30. Apparently in VA, officers have a certain slot where they handle all their cases from the previous weeks and for my officer, that was his next time. I booked it and was told I’d receive some more information at home.
Weeks went by. I worked, took time off for the holidays, returned to work, and went on with life as usual. Then one night I got a message from Panda that sounded totally ominous. Officers had stopped by and needed to talk to me! This totally threw me off. What officers? Why did they need to talk to me? Panda just said they’d be back later that night, so I needed to get home around 7. Apparently they needed to issue me a ticket for running a stop sign or something? No such thing had happened, so that had me very confused. It all sounded very odd to me, so I called up the local police station to check in on whether that was standard protocol. They looked it up and determined that there was something the officers needed to deliver to me. I suddenly remembered the court date and figured out it was probably the summons for that. So I got home, called the police station to let them know I was home, and the officers came by. They were really nice and said they just had to give me the paperwork in person on behalf of the officer who wrote me the ticket. Loudoun officers need to deliver summons on behalf of the airport officers it seems. Must be a jurisdiction thing. The officers also let me know that it could go pretty quickly or I might be waiting at the courthouse for hours, so I cleared my schedule for that afternoon, just in case.
Finally, my court date rolled around today. I went to work as usual in the morning and worked until lunch. I ate a quick meal before heading out with plenty of buffer time in case I got stuck in traffic, lost, or otherwise diverted and delayed. The drive was good and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. It took me some time to figure out where to park and which area of the building to walk to. Upon entering the courthouse, there was a security check where we were told that cell phones were not allowed except for lawyers. There were free lockers you could put them in – I had also brought my iPad to play a game while waiting, but I figured they probably wouldn’t want that either so I locked it away as well.
When I walked through the metal detector, it beeped and I looked worried. The cop monitoring it said not to worry, they were there to help and attributed my shoes for setting it off (metal in the heels I guess). I then continued in where another officer was able to take a look at my paperwork and direct me to an area with two possible courtrooms. She told me to check the monitors outside for my name so I’d know which one to enter. I skipped the windows where clerks of some sort were helping other people. The whole area was very bright and clean – very impressive. I thought it’d be a stodgy old place that smelled kind of strange and had off-yellow light, but it was airy and quite white.
At first glance, courtroom 1D only had 4 names for 1:30, so I went to 1C. That one had a list of names for 1, so of course I wasn’t on it. After standing around waiting with everyone else for awhile, I noticed the screen outside 1D change. Turns out I had only seen the last few names – the first screen had the bulk of them, which included mine for 1:30. A good 15 minutes beforehand, they opened the doors and we filed in. Nobody talked, so I wasn’t sure what to do, but I figured I was at the right place so I’d follow them in. The courtroom had a bunch of padded benches for us to sit on. Everyone chose a spot (I went for the second row, left side) and settled in. I gazed around at the room – tons of lighting, a portrait of some man on the wall closer to me, the judge’s seat with a nice big chair, tables for both sides, and a podium in the middle.
It felt like hours of sitting waiting at people came in and out. Some folks had lawyers who came to talk to them, then exited to talk to others. It was all very confusing. I just hoped I wasn’t first, since I would have no idea what to do or say. The police officers came in and took the front right area, where a jury might normally be. Most were in uniform but I think a few plainclothes people were also part of them. It was hard to tell who was a lawyer, who was an officer, and who was a normal citizen. At first I sat rather straight, but my back quickly started to hurt. The seating was soft, but the back of the benches were pretty far back and it seemed too relaxed to lean back like that. Alas, I caved and sat back after awhile. Right around 1:30, the guy who must have been the bailiff (who I thought was just another police officer attending court) had us all rise for the judge. We then took a seat as the judge quickly explained how it would go.
We had the option of 3 pleas: not guilty, guilty, or no contest. For the latter two, he would provide a sentence since you are basically admitting wrongdoing. No contest was meant that we recognize there is enough evidence against us. The majority of people before me entered “guilty with an explanation” – I guess they just wanted reduced sentences. Many of them had lawyers, so I felt rather alone. The judge was very kind and I got the impression he was looking out for our well-being. When one gentleman approached with no lawyer, explaining he tried and couldn’t find one he could afford, the judge suggested appointing one. The guy refused (he just wanted to plead guilty and get back to work), so the judge made sure he understood the ramifications before providing the paperwork for him to waive his right to an attorney. Another guy – a kid, really – seemed dumbfounded when the judge told him he’d have to get back to that case since the attorney for the Commonwealth of VA had not yet been consulted on whether to pursue jail time as part of the sentence. The judge was so concerned about him he had the kid return to the podium, look him in the eye, and confirm that he was ok before moving on.
The majority of pleas were guilty, so the judge would quickly provide a sentence. When there was proof that the person had started to fix the problem – take a driving course, apply for a VA license, or change out a car that had expired plates – the judge was more lenient and gave a lesser fine. When the person was a no-show, he would quietly let the officer know what the final fine amount was and the officer noted that in some giant binder they seem to come with. When there was representation, the case got pushed back for later. When it was more complex than a few quick minutes, the case also got pushed back. The whole process was rather efficient, getting as many cases out the door early in the process as possible. Finally, after a dozen names or so came the officer I was up against. Or so I thought. He had two no-shows, the judge issued a fine amount, the officer thanked him, and walked out. I was immensely confused. What about me? Had I somehow not shown up in the docket? Suddenly I started to question whether I was in the correct courtroom. After all, nobody had confirmed anything when we first entered.
Just as I was considering going to the back or outside to ask someone, I heard the judge call my name. Oh, and another thing I really liked about him – he greeted each defendant with “good afternoon” and asked if he was pronouncing the name correctly. With me, of course I had to correct him and I actually remembered it as he addressed me. When he asked my plea and I said “not guilty” he told me to take a seat. I got grouped into the “more complex” ones since I wanted to fight my ticket. However, the officer then spoke up and told the judge that since he did not have notes on the matter, he wanted to dismiss (or did he say withdraw?) it. I stepped back to the podium as the judge let me know that due to the officer’s request, my citation was null, so I was free to go. That was it! I thanked him and walked out pleased that I didn’t have to go through the whole explanation later.
As I picked up my electronics and exited the courthouse, it all felt surreal. Should I have gotten some sort of signature or stamp? How would I have proof that this was actually dropped? Did I really not have to do anything?! What a strange feeling. I didn’t even need the summons and ticket that I had brought with me. It really couldn’t have been simpler or tidier of a process. I walked back to my car and drove off not really believing it was so easy. I guess with a minor ticket like mine, they figure they have bigger fish to fry. People who actually committed a serious offense, like running a light, speeding waaay over the limit, driving without a license, or driving under the influence (all cases that had come before me today). So less than 25 minutes from the moment I stepped in that courtroom, I was already back in my car driving back to work. I’d say contesting my ticket was totally worth it!