It's always a good idea to check out your options for dealing with a traffic ticket before deciding what to do. For instance, traffic school is often a good option. But 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.
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 the 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.
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.
To defend against other violations, you might need to request "discovery" from the officer who cited you. For example, in defending against a speeding ticket, you might need documentation showing that the radar the officer used wasn't properly maintenanced.
Traffic court trials normally don't take long: less than an hour from 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 and the trial will begin.
If the officer doesn't show up on the day of trial, it usually means you win. In traffic cases, the officer not showing up is, of course, the best-case scenario but it happens in lots of cases.
In most traffic trials, the government's evidence consists of the testimony of the officer who issued the ticket. (For violations like red light 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. (In some states, traffic defendants can request a jury trial, in which case, the jury would make the decision.) A not-guilty finding means you've won—the ticket gets thrown out. A guilty finding, 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.
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.
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.
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.