Sometimes the best way to deal with a traffic ticket is to fight it in court. You might fight a ticket because you have a good defense or simply because you're facing license suspension if you don’t beat the ticket. Whatever your reasons for contesting a citation, this article will hopefully give you an idea of what you’ll be dealing with in court.
HOW MINOR TRAFFIC OFFENSE COMPARE WITH MORE SERIOUS CRIMES
The process for dealing with minor traffic violations like speeding or running a stop sign is typically different than that for more serious driving-related criminal charges like reckless driving or vehicular homicide and manslaughter. Most jurisdictions have traffic courts that handle minor traffic violations exclusively. More serious traffic crimes go to criminal court. Traffic court is less formal than criminal court. And, unlike in criminal court, a person who’s accused of breaking a traffic law usually doesn’t have the right to a jury trial and court-appointed counsel.
This article is about the court process for minor traffic violations.
(Read more about how minor traffic violations differ from other crimes.)
The first step in fighting a traffic ticket usually involves showing up to court and entering a not guilty plea. This first court appearance is often called the “arraignment.” A specific arraignment date might be printed on your citation, or you may have a certain amount of time to show up in court (often within 30 days of when the citation was issued) for your arraignment.
The routine is a little different in every court. But generally, when court opens, a bailiff or clerk will give an announcement explaining how things run in that courtroom. Typically, the judge will then take the bench and start calling the cases on the schedule.
When the judge calls your case, you’ll go forward and state your plea. Generally, there are three plea options: no contest, guilty, or not guilty. But if you’re fighting your ticket, you want to say “not guilty.”
When you plead not guilty, the judge will set a new court date for your trial. Normally, the judge will order you and the citing officer to come back to court for your trial.
HIRING A TRAFFIC ATTORNEY TO FIGHT YOUR CITATION
Lots of people fight traffic tickets without retaining a lawyer. However, hiring an attorney has its advantages. Fighting a traffic ticket on your own generally requires going to court at least twice. But if you have an attorney, you typically won’t have to go to court at all. And the representation of an experienced traffic attorney will generally give you a better chance of winning your case.
If you want to maximize your chances of beating a ticket, you should come up with a trial strategy. People often show up to court with excuses for why they violated the law. But these excuses don’t usually amount to a legal defense.
With traffic violations, the government must prove guilt. Otherwise, the judge is supposed to dismiss the ticket. So, figuring out exactly what law you’re accused of violating is a good first step for devising a strategy. Your citation should say the code section of your violation. For instance, you might see something like “VC 22350,” which would mean “Vehicle Code section 22350.”
Once you figure out what you're charged with, look up the statute. Usually, a quick Internet search will do the trick. When you review a statute, you want to discern how the offense is defined. For instance, a stop sign statute might say something like: “Except when directed to proceed by a police officer, every driver approaching a stop sign must come to a complete stop prior to reaching a clearly marked stop line.”
The statutory definition gives you an idea of what defenses might work in court. For example, for the stop sign statute above, a valid defense would be that you didn’t stop because a police officer directed you to proceed. By reading the statute, you’d also know that being the only car at the intersection isn’t a valid excuse for not stopping.
Some traffic ticket defenses focus on the officer’s inability to perceive the violation. For instance, an officer who cited you for running a stop sign might not have been in a position to have a clear view of the intersection or the alleged violation. To prepare for such a defense, it’s probably a good idea to bring photographs and a simple map to court so you can show the judge what the situation was.
Traffic court trials normally don’t take long: less than an hour start to finish is fairly typical. When the judge calls your case, you and the officer will come up to the front of the court. If the officer isn’t there, it usually means you win. But if both you and the officer are present, the trial will go forward.
In most traffic trials, the government’s evidence consists of the testimony of the officer who issued the ticket. (For violations like red light or speed camera tickets, the judge might also consider photographic or video evidence.) Depending on the jurisdiction, it will either be a prosecutor or the judge who first questions the officer. The defendant then has the opportunity to “cross-examine” the officer by asking questions. When the officer's testimony is complete, the defendant gets a chance to present evidence and witness testimony. Oftentimes, defendants present their own testimony about what happened.
Once both sides have presented their evidence, the judge makes a decision. A not-guilty finding means you’ve won—the ticket gets thrown out. A finding of guilty, on the other hand, typically means you have to pay a fine and the violation will go on your driving record. However, some judges will allow a defendant to attend traffic school even after being found guilty at trial.