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Jefferson County Sheriff's sobriety checkpoint

Deputy Sheriff Rich Beattie of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office checks a driver's license at a sobriety checkpoint on Wednesday, April 3, 2013, at the intersection of Vogel Road and Miller Road in Arnold. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

How does a speeding ticket turn into a ticket for a noisy muffler?

How do two points against your license turn into zero?

Here’s how: The driver agrees to pay a much bigger fine than the speeding ticket would bring, along with perhaps $45 to $100 to the lawyer who worked things out. The municipal prosecutor changes the moving violation to a nonmoving offense.

“That’s what’s called fixing a ticket,” said attorney Stephen Bardol, who handles many traffic cases. It’s traffic justice, St. Louis style.

Traffic tickets can be plea-bargained, and often are in St. Louis and its suburbs.

The process leaves two parties happy: the municipality, which collects a bigger fine, and the lawyer, who gets paid for arranging it.

The driver with the ticket is left perhaps less miserable. He spends more money than he’d pay on a speeding ticket. But he avoids a three- to five-year hit to his auto insurance premiums that usually come with a moving violation.

For repeat offenders, it puts them farther from the point limit that leads to a license suspension.

The system raises some good-government questions. Should traffic court be seen more as an instrument of public safety, or as a source of municipal revenue? Should people with money be allowed to keep driving in circumstances where poorer people have to walk because they couldn’t buy their way out of license suspensions brought on by traffic tickets?

Such musings are beyond the scope of a column about money. Let’s look at whether bargaining a ticket is a good deal for the driver.

There are lots of moving parts here. First is the issue of whether you can get a deal at all.

It’s rare that you can bargain a drunken driving charge, said Robin Sullivan, the lawyer who runs the six-attorney Traffic Law Center.

“There are too many powerful forces in our society that prevent any lenient handling of a DWI case,” Sullivan said.

To beat a DWI, a lawyer has to find holes in the case, and that can mean taking it to trial. “It’s no cakewalk for a defense attorney,” Sullivan said.

But lesser tickets — speeding, stop-sign rolling and the like — are fair game for bargaining. Town prosecutors vary in their attitudes, and there are lots of towns in our suburban sprawl.

A person with a good driving record is more likely to get a good deal.

“If you have a large number of tickets, we’re less likely to amend it,” said Patricia Redington, St. Louis County counselor, whose office prosecutes traffic cases in unincorporated areas. Prosecutors also frown on recklessness. Going 30 miles per hour over the limit in a school zone will make bargaining difficult.

Keep cool at the traffic stop, lawyers say. “It does no good to yell at the officer. It makes things worse,” Sullivan said. If the cop writes a nasty note, prosecutors will show no mercy.

Going 15 miles over the limit on a big highway puts you in prime deal range. They might cut the charge in trade for a $220 fine — perhaps double the typical speeding fine.

But deals differ town by town. In some places, there’s practically a price list. “Some of them have charts,” Bardol said.

Lawyer fees vary, and they’ve come down over the years as more lawyers took on traffic cases. Some advertise fees as cheap as $45 for simple cases that lawyers can handle without a trip to court. The price rises with the difficulty.

People with tickets have no trouble finding lawyers. In fact, they often get letters offering lawyer’s services.

“I tell kids not to hide the ticket from Mom and Dad unless they’re home to intercept the mail,” Sullivan said.

Before shelling out the money, you might want a short chat about the chances of getting your particular ticket fixed.

Whether a deal is worth it depends on what you have to lose, how close you are to a license suspension and what a moving violation will do to your insurance rates.

In Missouri, eight points accumulated within 18 months will cost you a 30-day license suspension, according to the Department of Revenue. If it’s your second suspension, it will last 60 days. A third suspension lasts 90 days.

You’ll lose your license for one year if you get 12 points within one year, 18 points in two years or 24 points in three years.

You can appeal for a hardship license to get to work, but avoiding that major hassle is certainly worth some money.

If you are far from the point limit, consider the hit to your insurance premiums. This column explored that issue last week. The upshot is that a moving violation will usually raise your rates for at least three years. How much depends on the offense and the insurance company. You can get a rough idea of averages online at insurancequotes.com/auto/traffic-moving-violations. For instance, running a stop sign might raise your insurance by $212 per year.

Insurers may also cancel multicar discounts, Sullivan said. “That happened to me,” he said. “I was in Florida, and the prosecutor wasn’t friendly.”

Can a driver bargain down the ticket without a lawyer?

“People come up all the time and talk to our attorneys in court,” Redington said. But lawyers are better at it because they know the system. A lawyer is also more likely than a layman to win if the case goes to trial, and the prosecutor knows that, Redington said.

Sullivan thinks the ticket-bargaining system works pretty well. “It allows them to give a decent driver a break,” he said.

How about that pesky justice issue? Does having money give you an easier ride through traffic court?

“That’s true with a lot of things in life,” Redington said.