It looks so innocuous.
One day, you arrive home from work and find a letter in your mailbox from the DMV. Must be important, right? You’re worried about that upcoming traffic ticket hearing, and you would not want to miss a notice about the case.
You open the envelope and unfold an important-looking document:
STATEMENT IN PLACE OF PERSONAL APPEARANCE
The statement begins ironically: “you have the right to be represented by an attorney for this summons, including having an attorney assist you in preparing this form.” (Italics mine.)
The last part is particularly funny, because no attorney in the world would take money to assist you to fill out one of these absurd forms.
These days, the TVB aggressively tries to get motorists to appear via statement. Every motorist with a pending hearing will receive this form in the mail. The notices are laced with intimidating language: “Failure to send us a timely statement, appear in person or be granted an adjournment may result in the suspension of your driving privileges and a $70 suspension termination fee.” Note the order — they include “send in a timely statement” as your first option, a clear hint that it’s what the agency wants you to do. And why? Because they want to conduct as many guilty trials as easily and efficiently as possible, and that’s what the SIPOPA does.
What is the Statement in Place of Personal Appearance?
The Statement in Place of Personal Appearance — SIPOPA, in attorney parlance — is a piece of paper that substitutes for you in your TVB hearing.
To appear via SIPOPA, the motorist fills out the required information and explains why they should be found “not guilty.” After the officer testifies during your hearing, the judge will read your statement into the record, and then make a ruling. The vast majority of the time, that ruling will be “guilty.”
Now for some legal mumbo-jumbo: the SIPOPA is a waiver of your right to attend your hearing. If you send one in, you’re allowing yourself to be reduced to a piece of paper. And it’s a lot easier for a judge to convict a piece of paper.
So, why is TVB so intent on pushing the SIPOPA?
It depends who you ask.
If you ask the agency, they will say they want to make it easier for people to do their TVB cases. You can appear without missing school or work. And in these COVID times, you can do so while social distancing.
If you ask a traffic attorney, you will get a very different answer.
The SIPOPA is designed to coax the motorist into waiving a very fundamental right — the right to a fair hearing.
When you are accused of a traffic violation, you have a Constitutional right to appear in front of a judge and confront your accuser. When you appear via SIPOPA, you waive that right. These rights are not trivial. They are enshrined in the Constitution.
And for a practical matter, exercising these rights gives you a much, much better chance of winning your case.
What’s the difference? Am I really less likely to win via SIPOPA?
If you appear via statement, you will only win if the cop does not appear.
If the cop is ready, you have almost no chance.
Why? Because on one side, there’s a police officer, replete with the summons, notes, and testimony. On the other side, a piece of paper.
You will not receive the fairest hearing in this circumstance. You will not be able to appeal directly to the judge, face-to-face. You will not be able to review the officer’s summons and notes or ask him questions.
I call the SIPOPA “the guilty sheet.” If you mail it in, you’re making it that much easier for the judge to find you guilty.
Your best bet? Attorney, not SIPOPA.
If you care about your license, consult with me about your traffic summons.
You will get the benefits of a SIPOPA, in that you will not need to appear in court. But you will have a much better chance of winning.
You’ll have an attorney fighting for you — an attorney who knows the judges, the law, the officer, and the nuances of the court. In short, you will have the best possible chance to get your ticket dismissed.
But, attorney or no, if you care about your license, throw that SIPOPA in the trash.