Washington Court Slams Brakes on Traffic Appeals

Posted January 6, 2012 in by David Baarlaer


Most people’s reaction to a bogus traffic ticket is to fight it in court. In the state of Washington, though, drivers may only get one shot, after that, they may be stuck. 

  • The Washington Court of Appeals won’t take appeals in typical traffic citation cases
  • Washington and similar states may take action to protect revenue streams
  • Know what you can do to beat a ticket in Washington and elsewhere


Court Takes Some of the Fight Out of the Fight

Like everywhere else in the US, Washington state residents can try to beat a traffic ticket in court. Until a few days ago, Washington had the same rule as most other states: The person who loses in court usually can appeal to higher courts and seek a better result. Not so much anymore.

It all began when a trial court (called a “superior court” in Washington) decided that the City of Spokane’s system of “red light cameras” was illegal and threw out three traffic citations. The problem was the tickets were executed in Arizona by a company hired by the City to process the electronic citations. That, the superior court ruled, violated a state law requiring citations to be executed and signed within the state of Washington.

The City didn’t like the ruling and asked the state’s second highest court, the court of appeals, to look at the case again to make sure the superior court got the decision right. But the court never answered the question about the legality of the cameras.

Instead, the court ruled that it didn’t have the authority (or “jurisdiction“) to answer the question. According to the court, state law gave the court the power to decide cases only where the parties are fighting over more than $200. Because the traffic citations were only for $124 each, the court punted and said it didn’t have the authority to make a decision.


Some Court Basics

From personal injury lawsuits to serious criminal trials, in practically any legal matter that makes it to the courts, the person who loses has the right to appeal. The idea is to make sure the court that made the original decision did everything right.

Also, practically every court in every city, county and state has a jurisdictional threshold or amount in controversy limit on a court’s power to decide certain cases. Certain courts get certain cases, depending on the problem, and in civil (non-criminal cases), the amount of money involved. For instance, the small claims courts in your state may only take cases involving $500 or less.

The drivers and the City had their chances in court, and the City ultimately lost. So, the Washington court’s decision really isn’t all that surprising, except for one thing.

Back in 2004, the same court ruled in favor of the City on its appeal and took away a driver’s recovery of court costs he had to pay when he successfully beat a $143 traffic citation. But in the most recent case, the court flip-flopped. “Just because review was mistakenly accepted in the [2004 case],” wrote the court, “does not mean that we should repeat that mistake here, where the amount in controversy requirement is clearly lacking.”

Dean ChuangDean Chuang, an attorney with Crary, Clark & Domanico, P.S. in Spokane who specializes in traffic infractions and other criminal matters, thinks the court got it right. “The limit on the Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction has been established for quite some time. The $200 limit was established, at least for the Supreme Court, in the State Constitution when it was first adopted. The appellate court’s limit followed suit through statute.” Why? Mr. Chuang explains that, “The Courts are backed up and there needs to be limits on what can be heard. If you take into account inflation, $200 back in 1889 would be worth about $4800 today. Back in 1889, $200 was a fair amount of money.”


What Happens Next?

There are millions of vehicles on our streets and highways everyday. And everyday, law enforcement officials from coast to coast issue thousands of traffic citations. According to statistics provided to us by the Washington State Transportation Commission, in 2010 alone, over 1 million traffic-related cases were filed in the state court system – and that doesn’t include parking tickets or DUI/DWI cases!

Forgetting for the moment the safety factor involved in stopping and deterring traffic violations, think about the revenue these citations bring to the public coffers. In tough economic times, state and local governments aren’t going to give up that revenue stream without a fight.

With that in mind, any number of things could happen in Washington (or other states where courts have low amounts in controversy), to avoid the revenue loss, such as:

  • Raising the jurisdictional limit to account for inflation, as mentioned by Mr. Chuang
  • Increasing “red light” citations above the jurisdictional limit
  • Making traffic cases an exception to the amount in controversy rules. That’s unlikely, though, at least in Washington where, according to Mr. Chuang, “The courts are one of the least funded Courts in the US,” making it “unlikely the legislature will want to over tax the system with even more cases” 

As for the City of Spokane, unless it can figure out a way to get the state supreme court to decide if its red light camera system is legal or not, you can bet it will change the system to avoid the same problem in the future. Until then, of course, tickets issued under the current system aren’t enforceable.


What’s a Driver To Do?

In Washington (and other states as well), drivers have a way around the $200 limit to get their traffic cases heard on appeal. Mr. Chuang points out that they may “appeal directly to the state supreme court, because there is an exception to the $200 bar if you are challenging the constitutionality of the statute.” So, in the recent case, if the drivers had lost on their appeal in the superior court, they probably could have appealed to the state supreme court with an argument that the City’s red light camera law is unconstitutional.

The downside is the cost. “Most of the time, it is not worth appealing a $124 ticket any further than the superior court,” explains Mr. Chuang, simply because the filing fees alone are usually more than the cost of the ticket. Tack on other court costs and maybe attorney’s fees, and that $124 ticket could cost you thousands.

Other than obeying the traffic laws in the first place and avoiding the ticket altogether, your best bet is to beat the traffic ticket in your first try in court. Learn all you can about the traffic laws and courts in your state and fight it. Of course, if you’re facing serious consequences beyond the price of the ticket – like suspension of your license or a high number of points against your license – it’s probably a good idea to get some help from an experienced attorney rather than going it alone.


Dave Baarlaer is a news reporter for Lawyers.com

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