Proposed by the Utah Commission of Justice in the 21st Century

Decriminalize minor traffic offenses, such as speeding, so that a jail sentence would not be imposed and a jury trail would not be held. Fines and penalties enforced through civil court. Serious offenses including DUI, reckless driving, vehicle homicide, leaving the scene of the accident and joy riding remain criminal.

A black wreath hangs in Judge Peggy Acomb's chambers.

It reminds her of the seriousness of all traffic offenses when penalties affect a person's freedom or pocketbook.

The day she received the ominous wreath with an accompanying note wishing her a speedy death is a day she remembers every time she takes the bench.

She had sentenced a woman to jail on a driving-under-the-influence-of-alcohol conviction. In court, the woman's husband had protested loudly, cursing the judge for removing the woman from her home and children.

Nasty threats and curses are not misbehaviors limited to those convicted of DUI.

People get just as angry if they are fined and receive points against their drivers' licenses for "minor" offenses such as speeding or rolling through a stop sign, the judge said. "Even the most `minor' traffic violation can have an impact on people's lives."

A recommendation by the Utah Commission of Justice in the 21st Century to decriminalize minor traffic offenses offers a "mixed bag" of advantages and disadvantages, Acomb said.A primary advantage of decriminalization is simplifying the "cumbersome due process" of trying matters such as registration and driver's license violations in a full-blown court trial.

For instance: A person is cited by a police officer for failing to have registration. He pleads "not guilty" to the charge because he has a registration - it's just that it's in a desk drawer at home. Instead of the charge being dismissed as soon as the valid registration is shown to a judge, the case is set for trial. Police officers, attorneys, witnesses and court personnel must take time to present evidence in a criminal trial.

Of the 159 trial settings on Acomb's January and February 1991 calendar, one-third of them involve drivers' licenses or registrations. "Clearly from an administrative position, these matters should be decriminalized. They significantly contribute to the court's backlog."

The more than 50,000 unserved outstanding warrants to drivers who ignore their traffic citations show the present "criminal" system is flawed, she said. Thousands of dollars in fines remain uncollected. If police officers do catch up with these warrant-evaders, they may send them to jail. "But is it really worth taxpayers' spending $85 a day to incarcerate a registration violator?"

A nagging concern Acomb has about decriminalization, however, is the public perception that a civil citation is not as serious as a criminal offense. The seriousness of violations like speeding and running a red light may be diminished in the public's mind. Safety may suffer.

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(Chart 1)

Excuses that don't work

Excuses that don't work when you're pulled over by a police officer:

(According to Sgt. Scott Atkinson, Salt Lake City Police)

Driver: "I'm late for work."

Officer: "You'll get there sooner if you're not stopped by a police officer."

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Driver: "I couldn't see the red light because I was driving behind a big truck."

Officer: "You shouldn't have been tailgating."

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Driver: "I'm en route to the hospital because I'm ill."

Officer: "I'll call the paramedics. Stay right there." (Most of the time the illness suddenly vanishes.)

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The best approach is courtesy. If you don't thing you're guilty, state your objection politely. The officer has a place on the ticket where he indicates any comments you make andy your demeanor. Under "Condition of Violator" the officer notes if you were: calm, excited, belligerent, injured or had been drinking. The judge or commissioner may consider how you treated the officer in deciding your situation. Crying or being a jerk may be evidence of your guilt."

(Chart 2)

Quiz: Are you street-wise?\True or False

1. It is illegal to drive barefooted.

2. You may legally turn left on a red light if you stop and then proceed from the inside lane of a one way street onto the inside lane of a one way street.

3. You can be cited for speeding while riding a bicycle on Utah roads.

4. Driving at 30 mph you travel at more than 40 feet per second.

5. It is illegal to drive wearing earphones.

6. Scenario: A guy has many drinks and drives home. His blood alcohol rating is over the legal limit. His angry wife kicks him out of the house. he then drives up and down his driveway honking his horn. his wife calls the police.

The man may legally be arrested on his driveway for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Source: Dan McNair, Utah Traffic School Instructor

Answers

1. False 2. True 3. True (Bicycles are subject to same road laws as motor vehicles.) 4. True (44.1 per second) 5. False 6. True (You don't have to be driving on the streets to be arrested for DUI. Technically, a farmer driving drunk on his tractor in his field could be cited for DUI.)