Study the exact language of the law (code section or statute) you were charged with violating. The key fact to remember: If you can prove even one element of the infraction is missing from the facts, you should be found not guilty.
In many states, with many tickets, it’s perfectly possible—and sometimes even fairly easy—to challenge the police officer’s view of what happened. This is particularly likely in situations where a cop must make a subjective judgment as to whether you violated an element of the offense in a situation where no accident ensued. For example, when an officer gives you a ticket for making an unsafe left turn, you may argue that your actions were safe and responsible, considering the prevailing traffic conditions. Of course, it will help your case if you can point to facts that tend to show that the cop was not in a good location to accurately view what happened or was busy doing other tasks (driving 50 mph in heavy traffic, for example).
In about 20 states, deciding whether it is safe to exceed the speed limit is another circumstance where a subjective judgment must be made. That’s because in these states the posted speed limit is not an absolute limit, but only creates a legal presumption as to the safe speed for that road. This in turn raises the possibility of challenging the officer’s judgment by proving it was safe to slightly exceed the posted limit.
Assume now your state law requires an objective observation by the officer, not a judgment call about whether your action was safe. This would be true if you were cited for failing to come to a stop at a red light or making a prohibited turn. Defending this type of ticket often boils down to an argument about whose version of the facts is correct. For example, if you say, “The light was still yellow when I entered the intersection,” the officer is likely to reply, “It was red, red, red, ten feet before the driver got to the crosswalk.” In disputes like this, the person with the badge usually wins unless you can cast real doubt on the officer’s ability to accurately perceive what happened. Fortunately, despite the fact that most judges tend to believe cops, there are a number of types of evidence that may work to raise at least a reasonable doubt as to your guilt.
Here are the types of evidence most likely to help you convince a judge:
Even if you technically violated a statute, consider whether you have a good defense based on the argument that your conduct was based on a legitimate mistake.
Judges are allowed some leeway in considering circumstances beyond your control. If you can show that you made an honest and reasonable error, a judge might find you made a “mistake of fact” that means your ticket should be dismissed—for example, if you failed to stop at a stop sign after a major storm because the sign was hidden by a broken branch. However, a judge would probably not buy this defense if the sign had been up for more than a few weeks, you drove that route every day, or you were traveling 50 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone.
You may also successfully argue that your actions were “legally justified” considering the circumstances of your alleged violation. For example, if you were charged with driving too slowly in the left lane, it is a legal defense in all states that you had to slow down to make a lawful left turn. In this situation you do not have to deny that you were driving significantly below the speed limit and causing vehicles behind you to slow down, but you can offer the additional fact that legally justifies your otherwise unlawful action. Such defenses can be very successful because they raise an additional fact or legal point, rather than simply contradicting the officer’s testimony.
Here are a couple of examples of situations in which this defense might work:
Emergencies not of your own making are often another legal “necessity” defense recognized in all 50 states. The key here is to convincingly argue that you were forced to violate the exact wording of a traffic law in order to avoid a serious and immediate danger to yourself or others—for example, you swerve across a double yellow line to avoid hitting another vehicle, pedestrian, animal, or other unexpected obstacle. If you had failed to take such an evasive action, you would have been at high risk of being involved in an accident.
Excerpted and adapted from Beat Your Ticket: Go to Court & Win, by David W. Brown (Nolo).