If you should get a traffic ticket in Baltimore County and your driving record is less than stellar, think twice about going to trial if Judge I. Marshall Seidler is on the bench. Just go to the window and pay. In response to complaints that some traffic judges were too lenient, I recently paid a visit to Baltimore County District Court in Towson.
What I found in this case was one tough, consistent and fair judge. He's retired now and only hears cases when he chooses, but perhaps some of his junior colleagues could take lessons.
Sitting in traffic court can be an ordeal if you have been on the receiving end of a ticket. But for an observer, it's a good show.
A Cockeysville man pleaded guilty to going 80 in a 55-mph zone and tried to get a break. He should have just paid the $160 ticket.
Judge Seidler pulled up the defendant's history on his computer screen. "You've got a terrible driving record," said the judge. "Why did you want me to see it?"
The fine, according to court record: $167.50 plus court costs of $25.50. No probation before judgment. No break on points. As the judge said, he has the power to increase the fine a violator could have paid by mail.
(Names have been withheld to protect the guilty wretches. The chances are about 99.9 percent a reporter won't be in traffic court if you appear. But if one is present, be advised it's all on the public record and your name and pathetic excuses can be used in print without your permission.)
A young man from Phoenix pleaded guilty to going 70 mph in a 55-mph but had an explanation. Bad mistake. The judge spotted his prior speeding ticket. "You've got a terrible driving record," Seidler intoned. Fine plus costs: $133. No breaks. Mailing in a check would have cost $90.
If you've got a clean driving record, Seidler is inclined to give you probation before judgment - with no points to blemish your insurance record - if you agree to pay the fine and court costs. That afternoon, all accepted.
An Abingdon man already had two PBJs, plus at least one other speeding case in which he was found guilty. So this time he tried pleading not guilty to driving 80 in a 55-mph stretch of the Beltway. According to state police Trooper Matthew Telep, who clocked the driver with his own speedometer, the driver had a 1-year-old child in the car.
The defense came down to: "I don't think I was going that fast."
The judge wasn't buying it. Guilty. The fine: $233 with costs. No PBJ this time.
A Bel Air man was the afternoon's speed champ, having been clocked at 90 mph in a 65-mph zone on Interstate 95 near White Marsh. He explained that he had just got a call from his mom saying his uncle was in the hospital. Plus, he had a brand-new car he had never taken out on the highway before.
Guilty. No PBJ. But the man got a break on the fine: $233 instead of the $290 he could have paid by mail. (Judge: You shoulda hammered him.)
Seidler also gave a break to two drivers, a New Hampshire woman and a Middle River man, who failed to stop for a flashing school bus sign. The judge could have fined them $525 for what he called "one of the worst violations," but he left them off with $200 and costs. No PBJ on the two-point violation, though.
A Pikesville woman pleaded not guilty to going 51 in a 30-mph, challenging the accuracy of the officer's LIDAR (laser radar) reading. Seidler dryly observed that the technology was the same used to put bombs through a window from 10,000 feet.
Guilty. Fine of $142 plus costs. No PBJ.
A Baltimore man was facing a fine of $160 for going 50 in a 30-mph zone. He pleaded not guilty and proceeded to defend himself. Johnny Cochran he was not.
First he tried a line of defense that doesn't seem to cut it with the judge: "I don't think I was going that fast." He insisted he had been doing the speed limit and that he hadn't had a ticket in five to 10 years.
But Seidler had instant access to the man's driving record.
"That wasn't true," the judge said, asking the defendant's age.
Fifty, said the defendant, who claimed memory loss.
"You're not old enough to forget," Seidler said, finding the defendant guilty not just of speeding but of failing to tell the truth to the court. Fine: $242 plus costs. No PBJ.
Through the afternoon, the judge heard a variety of excuses:
A college student from Timonium pleaded guilty to 62 in a 35 but explained she was running late to a planning meeting for Halloween Fun Night. But her driving record came back to haunt her.
"Were you late in July when you got the other speeding ticket?" Seidler asked. That reading of 65 in a 40 got her a PBJ and a break on the fine. This time, $167 and points.
And so it went.
"It was a steep hill." "I live in Howard County." "I've had several problems with my car." Guilty, guilty, guilty.
One thing was consistent in all of the speeding cases. None was trivial. It appeared that officers and troopers in Baltimore County aren't writing many tickets for less than 15 mph over the limit.
So it shouldn't be too difficult to avoid a date with I. Marshall Seidler, an old-school judge.
(P.S. I understand there are still some "cream puffs" out there. Nominations are still open.)