Defendants tell their stories using flannel boards, toy cars and photographs of the scene of the crime.
Those who appear before Traffic Citation Commissioner Michael J. Eardley, 3rd Circuit Court, want to explain their side of the story story behind the dreaded traffic ticket.Eardley says women are particularly terrified. Their hands tremble as they ask for compassion and a chance to prove they are honest citizens trying their best to get along with others on the road.
For seven years, Eardley has heard many versions of proclaimed innocence. Some stories he believes. Others he doesn't.
All winter long he heard stories of cars sliding on ice, unable to avoid a collision. "With bad weather conditions, some accidents are understandable. If restitution has been made, then I can talk about being flexible. I give people a chance to get their frustrations off their chests without going through the formal court process."
But those who come in cited for traveling 20 to 30 miles over the speed limit are treated very differently. "I will not negotiate those cases," he said.
About 93 percent of cases that come before Eardley are resolved without his setting the case for a trial. If a person admits guilt but has a reasonable explanation, Eardley may allow an offender the option of paying a fine and/or attending traffic school or a driver's defense course. There is also a traffic school especially for senior citizens.
If a person insists he or she is not guilty, the case is scheduled for trial.
Eardley's goal is to help people drive more safely. He believes minor traffic offenses should not be decriminalized, because jail is a critical disincentive.
"People respond to different penalties. Jail is a more effective deterrent than paying a fine."
He admits that four years ago thousands of warrants were ignored and uncollected. But 3rd Circuit Court has improved their record for enforcing warrants. Frequently, officers bring violators into Eardley's office - sometimes in handcuffs - to clear up their records.
Running a red light, speeding, ignoring traffic signals may be categorized as "minor traffic" offense, said Eardley, but all indicate "intent."
"Few people run a red light because they just didn't see it. Drivers make a choice and should face appropriate penalties for a choice that can threaten life."