Courts & Crime

Man appeals traffic ticket to the end of the road, and wins

After getting a ticket for driving the wrong way on the freeway, Andy Magee figured it would be easy to explain that it was all a mistake.

"I had an honest but perhaps naive idea that this would be resolved in five minutes," Magee said last week. "All I had to do was explain what I did."

What Magee did was try to help a friend fix his car after it died on an on-ramp to Highway 512 in Puyallup. He and the friend drove up the on-ramp and pulled in behind the broken car. When it still wouldn't start, and when the battery was depleted by the effort, Magee decided to try to jump-start his friend’s car.

The self-described overly cautious driver pulled around the dead car and pulled into the opposite shoulder. After he checked the on-ramp for traffic and signaling his intentions, he did a U-turn into the other shoulder and pulled nose-to-nose with the car.

Shortly thereafter, a State Patrol trooper was told that several people had called to report a driver headed the wrong way on 512. When she saw the two cars on the ramp, she pulled over.

Magee told her what happened, but she insisted that he must have driven on the actual freeway to end up in the position he was. She issued him a moving violation.

Magee happens to be a lawyer, as is his friend. He contested the ticket and during the hearing asked the trooper if she'd witnessed him driving the wrong way. She said she had not.

Still, Judge Maggie Ross upheld the ticket, remarking that "unless you were airlifted, you were going the opposite direction of what the natural flow of traffic." After the ruling, Magee recalls thinking "you can just pay it or you can appeal it. As soon as I thought it, it was 'Oh no, Magee, now you know that's what you're going to do.'"

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bev Grant ruled against him. A magistrate at the Court of Appeals rejected his appeal there. A request for reconsideration worked but the panel of three appeals judges agreed with Ross and Grant.

So Andy Magee appealed again. To the Washington state Supreme Court. Over a traffic ticket.

When the top court agreed to hear his appeal his first reaction was that he actually had a chance. His second reaction was quite different.

"Maybe they want to haul me down there to rip me a new one for taking a stupid traffic ticket to the Supreme Court," Magee said.

The core of his case was this: The law on driving the wrong way on the freeway says the officer must witness the violation. Since the trooper admitted she hadn't seen anything other than two parked cars she had no authority to write the citation.

On the other side was Pierce County deputy prosecutor Michelle Hyer, who argued that the trooper witnessed the car parked opposite the flow of traffic and therefore she saw the end of the moving violation. The violation was ongoing and the citation was justified.

Last week a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in Magee's favor.

Wrote Justice Tom Chambers: "Negligent driving in the second degree is a moving violation. For the infraction to be valid, the movement must have been made in the officer's presence."

Had he been paying someone else to take the case rather than doing the work himself Magee thinks it would have cost around $30,000 to contest a $500 ticket.

Magee, however, said he was acting on a principle that his ticket was wrong and illegal and that the system should have resolved it quickly.

"I'm not trying to make this the case of the century," he said. But the district courtroom was filled with people the day he lost in Ross's court.

"They should be able to believe that they can be heard and have the facts presented," Magee said. "That didn't happen to me."