Because the constitutional right to a court-appointed attorney doesn't apply in cases involving traffic violations (also called “traffic infractions”) motorists who receive traffic citations must hire an attorney or handle the ticket on their own. Before making the decision of whether to get an attorney to help with a traffic ticket, here are some factors a person might want to consider.
Traffic infractions are generally prosecuted in traffic courts, where the procedures are typically less formal than in criminal courts. A motorist charged with a traffic infraction usually has several options for resolving the citation, including:
The decision on whether to hire an attorney might depend on which of these options a motorist decides to go with.
Initially, an attorney can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the case, identify options for resolving the ticket, and provide advice on how to reach the most favorable outcome for the defendant's particular situation.
Whether a defendant decides to admit the traffic infraction or contest it, an attorney can help in a number of ways, including:
Going to court can be time consuming and inconvenient, especially if it requires traveling a long distance to the jurisdiction where the motorist received the citation. However, most jurisdictions allow an attorney to appear in the defendant's place. Hiring an attorney to go to court to resolve the citation can save the motorist time, money, and hassle.
A motorist who decides to contest a traffic ticket can plead not guilty and request a bench trial or, in some jurisdictions, a trial by declaration. A bench trial is a trial held in a courtroom in front of a judge. In other words, there's no jury deciding the case—the judge hears the evidence and decides whether the defendant is guilty. With a trial by declaration, the defendant can challenge the traffic ticket by submitting written testimony and other evidence without personally appearing in court.
Hiring an attorney to provide representation in a traffic trial can increase the chances of getting a ticket dismissed. Attorneys who regularly represent clients in traffic violation cases are familiar with state traffic laws and have experience appearing in court, presenting evidence, and challenging the state's evidence.
A self-represented defendant might have an easier time doing a trial by declaration than an in-court trial. But the lack of legal training and experience can still put the defendant at a disadvantage compared to defendants who are assisted by an attorney.
If the motorist pleads guilty or no contest, an attorney can help reduce the penalties of the citation. Potential penalties generally include a fine, traffic school, and demerit points on the motorist's driving record.
An attorney can help convince the judge to reduce the amount of the fine. Additionally, an attorney might be able to reduce or eliminate the assessment of demerit points on the driver's record. Keeping points off of the motorist's record can help avoid increased insurance premiums and license suspension.
A common alternative option to resolve a traffic citation is the completion of a traffic diversion program. The specifics vary by jurisdiction, but diversion programs generally require the motorist to:
In many jurisdictions, successfully completing a diversion program results in the dismissal of the traffic ticket. In other jurisdictions, however, completing the program reduces or eliminates the assessment of demerit points, but the infraction remains on the driver's record.
Completing a traffic diversion program is generally a good option to resolve a citation, however, most states have eligibility requirements. For example, in some jurisdictions, a diversion isn't available for motorists who have a commercial driver's license or are charged with certain more serious infractions. And motorists who have completed a diversion program for a previous infraction typically aren't eligible for the program again until a certain amount of time has passed.
Eligible defendants can benefit from hiring an attorney to advocate for the opportunity to complete a traffic diversion program. If the judge allows the defendant to complete a diversion program, an attorney can advise the defendant about the terms and conditions of the program to ensure successful completion.