Friday, February 17, 2006

Kansas City Municipal Court - No More "Defective Equipments" - And Star Misses the Story to Claim "Credit"?

The first legal matter I handled was a traffic ticket for an older attorney. The guy had been caught speeding in a suburb, and I went to the prosecutor, introduced myself, and a few minutes later the speeding charge was reduced to a "defective equipment" - which is a non-moving violation without points to be assessed against his license, and without insurance rate increases.

I had no proof of a defective speedometer, nor was any sought. The fine for the defective equipment charge was exactly double what it would have been for the speeding charge. I had a pleased client (my employer at the time, so that was important), the prosecutor and judge didn't have to try a case, the police officer didn't have to show up and testify, and the city got twice as much revenue. It was all so . . . convenient.

It felt dirty, though, in the immortal phrase of rationalization, everybody does it.

Until recently, you could handle tickets in the same fashion in Kansas Cit, Missouri - you even do them by mail - there was a memo specifying exactly how to do it, and the forms are available online. Except by "you", I don't mean most of you. I mean attorneys - you had to hire a lawyer to do the paperwork for you. Why? Umm, well, ummmm, well, that's just the way it is. Coincidentally, all the judges are lawyers, most of whom made a significant portion of their income from handling tickets that way. Coincidentally, former prosecutors often wind up doing the same. The requirement of hiring an attorney kept a subset of the bar employed, and it's possible to have a fairly lucrative practice just by handling hundreds of traffic tickets with a fee of $100 or so each.

As of end of business today, the Kansas City Municipal Court will no longer be doing "defective equipment" amendments
. Galen Beaufort, the City Attorney of Kansas City, is putting a stop to the practice, and the lawyers are howling with outrage. A lawyer listserve I belong to was buzzing last night with anguish and plans to fight the change in policy by trying every speeding case - clogging the courts, reducing city revenue, and inconveniencing police officers. We'll see what happens.

The Kansas City Star makes it sound like this policy change comes as a result of its investigation into defective equipment pleas published two weeks ago(link unavailable due to archaic archiving practices by the Star). That's only half the story, though.

I've heard that one of the municipal judges has been making noise about two Iowa cases that say the whole process is unethical - Iowa Supreme Court Disciplinary Board v. Howe, 706 N.W.2d 360 (IA 2005), and Iowa Supreme Court Disciplinary Board v. Zenor, 707 N.W.2d 176 (IA 2005). In a nutshell, those cases say that, under Iowa law, it is unethical to agree to an amendment to a charge without probable cause to believe it is a legitimate charge. If a prosecutor has no basis for believing you had defective equipment on your car, s/he can't amend your speeding ticket to that charge.

We'll see how this all works out. The Iowa cases are not binding in Missouri. If the ethics issue is really motivating the change, why is the prosecutor's office still accepting amendments through the close of business today?

I'll keep you posted.


Anonymous anonymous me said...

AS an attorney, and a prosecutor, I agree with the change in principle. I have a very hard time, and in fact refuse (though I don't do traffic cases, generally) to agree to a plea that cannot be reasonably based on actual facts. It's dishonest with the courts (which makes it inherently unethical), and feeds the impression that it is all just a big game.

I doubt that, after the initial outrage, that the courts will be "clogged" etc. After all, doing so costs those defense attorneys as well - trials are time-consuming, and the subsequent "clogging" cuts both ways.

2/17/2006 8:57 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Well stated and I agree, Anonymous Me.

Damn, I never thought I'd type that!

2/17/2006 9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard that KCMO is amending tickets again. . Can anyone confirm

9/15/2006 5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes they are

10/02/2006 6:31 PM  

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