Why do innocent people plead guilty? Ticket edition.

Much has been written about why innocent people plead guilty to serious charges. Basically, it’s because the possible sentence and penalties (prison/fines) for going to trial are so great that the risk-averse will avoid trial when possible. But why do innocent people plead guilty when the stakes are low? Like Class-C misdemeanor low? That’s a simpler explanation, the cost of fighting the case is so much higher than the penalty, that most won’t bother trying to avoid the penalty.

Example- You are involved in an argument with a neighbor over loud fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Neighbor says you pushed him, you tell the cops that Neighbor fell down because he was drunk. The police show up, don’t know who to believe, and write you a ticket for assault since you aren’t claiming the neighbor did anything illegal. The police would probably prefer to not write any citations, but they are worried that the next time you guys argue someone might get hurt, so this creates a record of events and is a decent way to CYA the situation in case of future conflict.

Now you are facing a Class C Assault By Contact in your local Muni Court. Too many local municipal courts in Texas are run as profit-making ventures. Cities hire Municipal court judges and prosecutors (city attorneys), and often do so with the goal of maximizing fines (revenue).

You come into my office and tell me you are innocent, this is a bullshit case, and want to set it for trial. The fine you are facing is a max of $500, the fees for a jury trial are going to be a few multiples of that amount. Why? Ticket courts are great at wasting time. And lawyers sell our time and advice. It’s the nature of the business.

Let’s say you find a high volume traffic-ticket lawyers who will try the case for a $1000. What have you bought? The chance to not be convicted, to fight the case, to seek justice, and to tell your story to a fact-finder. What are you risking? At the end of the day, the jury/judge could still find you guilty and order you to pay the $500.

So you decide to skip paying a lawyer and do this yourself. How much time are you going to spend to avoid paying $500? 5 hours? 10 hours? 20 hours? You show up to court alone and meet with the city attorney. She offers you a deal, plead no content, and get 90 days deferred. She will even drop the fine to $250 just for being so cooperative. You decide to not miss any more work and just plead no contest. Why? Because your time is valuable, and being your own lawyer sucks. This is what the vast majority of ticket defendants do. So don’t feel bad, but at the same time, don’t be surprised when someone says they are innocent, and still takes a plea bargain on a ticket case.



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