Many drivers have experienced the sinking feeling that accompanies the flashing lights and siren of a police vehicle pulling them over. But, for drivers who are cited on Edwards AFB, there may be harsher penalties.
Capt. David Jacobs, 412th Test Wing assistant staff judge advocate, said the main difference is that the offense is handled in federal court rather than a state court.
“When you get a ticket on base you’re subject to prosecution by a magistrate court, which is a federal court where you have to appear and do your initial plea in Bakersfield [Calif.] so it’s a bit of a drive,” said Jacobs.
Civilians with federal tickets that do not order a mandatory court appearance have two options, pay the fine or appear in court to fight it. Paying the fine is an admission of guilt and will be reported to the DMV and may therefore affect the driver’s insurance rates. If the driver chooses to appear in court, there are two steps to the process.
The first step is to appear at the federal court in Bakersfield to plead their case, guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads not guilty a court date and time will be set to plead their case and present supporting evidence on base. The officer who issued the ticket is summoned at that time.
Edwards AFB holds quarterly trials at the base courthouse where the magistrate judge comes on base to listen to cases.
“During that time the government has to prove that whatever offense – speeding, reckless driving, not stopping at a stop sign – the defendent is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Jacobs. “It doesn’t necessarily rely on the officer. With that said, if we are not able to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt at the time of the trial, it will be dismissed or a determination of Not Guilty will be found.”
To prove their case, the government may call additional witnesses to verify their case, such as a second officer riding in the vehicle at the time of the violation.
“The judge there, her job is to be neutral, to look at both sides,” said Jacobs. “The initial burden is on the government to prove their case.”
Once the government has done so beyond a reasonable doubt, the person charged may present their evidence or witnesses, including themselves. If a person charged with a moving violation chooses to take the stand, they may be cross-examined by the government.
“They can show up, not present any evidence at all and still be found not guilty because it’s our burden to show that they committed the offense,” said Jacobs. “Other than showing up at the trial, you don’t really have to do anything because we have to prove it.”
Some of the programs available to civilians through the state are not offered through the magistrate court, however traffic school is. For instance, if a driver is cited for out-dated tags, the state court may drop the charge if the motorist can prove, within a designated time frame, that the tags had been updated. The federal court however, would not. There are also instances where a state court may not require a mandatory appearance, but a federal court will.
For those who qualify for and desire traffic school, they should not pay the fine. Instead, they must call the Central Violations Bureau or appear in court to request traffic school. The fine is then due with the proof of traffic school.
“When you’re doing traffic school you are saying that you’re guilty of the underlying offense, but the benefit is that it’s not on your record. When you can do it, it’s generally a good idea to do it.”
The magistrate court however is only for civilians to include dependents, government civilians and contractors. For active duty military members, the violations are processed separately and sent to their commanders.
“They can get paperwork written up and various other troubles for getting it on base,” said Jacobs. “If an active duty person gets a ticket off base, they still have to report to the commander and they have the ticket, so they may get double hit.”
The base is also a place that takes driving privileges very seriously.
“The unique thing of on base is that we have the magistrate court system, which is basically like a federal version of traffic court for minor, petty offenses, but because it’s also on an installation, the installation commander has the ability to prevent people from driving on base,” said Jacobs.
The installation commander holds the ability to suspend or revoke on-base driving privileges or restrict base access in lieu of, or in addition to, traffic court, depending on the severity of the violation.
“It is a big deal, it’s expensive and it can count against your record,” said Jacobs. “Not only that, but it can affect your ability to drive on base. When you’re coming on base, usually you’ll see the Edwards AFB sign and there will be a couple vehicles parked on the side. The Edwards AFB sign is where the base starts; the vehicles parked on the other side are people that have all had their driving privileges revoked.”
According to Jacobs, the number one traffic violation on base is failing to come to a full and complete stop. He added that the officer is looking at whether the wheels are still rolling which is “easy to tell” and for the small dip in the front end of the vehicle when it stops.
“If the officer doesn’t see that complete momentary pause, stopping the wheels or the dip of the vehicle, they know the driver hasn’t come to that complete stop.”
The fine for failing to stop may vary based on the type of stop. For instance, failing to stop at a flashing red light carries a heftier fine than at a stop sign.
Jacobs shared that it’s always important to come to complete stop to ensure the intersection is clear and safe, especially for emergency vehicles that might be rushing by. He also encouraged drivers to remember that the base is “like a giant neighborhood” with families and children.
“It’s best to drive carefully on base and drive that way off-base as well and make sure you’re abiding by the law.”