In all traffic cases, it's up to the government to prove the offense. Depending on what state you live in, this burden falls on the shoulders of either a prosecutor or the officer who issued the citation. When defending against a traffic violation charge, you'll generally be arguing either that the government can't prove the violation or that you can establish a legal defense.
Stop sign laws are relatively straightforward. However, there are still defenses that can work. This article covers some common defense to stop sign tickets and options for dealing with your ticket that don't involve contesting it.
To assess whether the government can prove the violation, it helps to know how the violation is defined. Every state has laws that specify what drivers must do when approaching a stop sign. These laws differ somewhat by state. (Read about the stop signs laws specific to your state.) But generally, you can be convicted of running a stop sign if you don't:
In other words, you can be ticketed for either not stopping at all or not stopping in time.
Compared to some other traffic violations, there are probably fewer available defenses for fighting a stop sign ticket. (For instance, read about fighting a speeding ticket.) However, the defenses that can work usually fall into one of following categories.
Challenging the officer's perception. If your case strictly comes down to your word against the officer's, you're probably in trouble. In other words, if you say you stopped and the officer says you didn't, your chances of coming out on top aren't great.
But for an officer to be certain about what happened, the vantage point is important. If you can establish the officer wasn't positioned so as to have a clear view, you might have a shot at convincing a judge to believe you over the officer. For example, you may have stopped several yards in advance of the limit line but, because of a bush or some other intervening object, the officer just didn't see the stop.
It's often easier and clearer to show rather than explain to a judge what happened. So, photos, videos, and maps can be helpful in establishing a defense based on the officer's inability to see what happened.
Positioning or legibility of the sign. Generally, a motorist can't be prosecuted for running a stop sign that was obstructed or illegible. The standard that applies here is whether an ordinary, observant person would have been able to see and read the sign. So, if trees were blocking the sign or it was so faded that you couldn't make out what it said, you might have a good defense. Again, bringing proof in the form of videos, photographs, and maps can be useful to establish this defense in court.
Emergencies. Occasionally, emergency situations require drivers to go through a stop sign. For instance, if an ambulance needs to get through, and you have to go through a stop sign to clear the path, you're probably justified in doing so. However, it's not often that an emergency situation will provide a defense because, if there was such an emergency, the officer would likely have been aware and not issued the citation in the first place.
If you beat your ticket at trial, you won't have to pay the fine or worry about a blemish on your driving record. But in many in cases, your chances of winning at trial are slim. And lots of people just don't have the time to go to traffic court or the money to hire a traffic attorney. However, if you decide against fighting your citation, you may still have some decent options.
Traffic school. For eligible motorists, traffic school can be a good option for dealing with a stop sign ticket. By completing traffic school, a motorist can avoid traffic violation points and usually save some money.
Plea bargaining. Sometimes, plea bargaining is possible in traffic cases. The idea is to reach an agreement that allows you to enter a plea to a violation that carries less serious consequences than a stop sign violation—meaning, an offense with a lower fine or point value.
Fine reductions. In most jurisdictions, judges have some leeway with fine amounts. So, if you think you're going to have trouble paying your ticket, it usually doesn't hurt to request a fine reduction—especially if you have a good explanation for the judge.
(Read more about options for dealing with a traffic ticket.)