If you get cited for a moving violation, you generally have a handful of options for dealing with it. State laws vary, and everyone’s circumstances are different. So there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for how best to handle a traffic ticket. But hopefully, this article can give you an idea of what your choices are and help you decide what’s best for you.
TRAFFIC VIOLATIONS COMPARED TO OTHER CRIMES
Generally, the court procedures for minor traffic violations (such as speeding and running a red light) are different than those for more serious driving-related offenses like driving under the influence (DUI), reckless driving, and vehicular homicide. For starters, minor traffic violations are typically dealt with in traffic court, whereas more serious driving-related charges are handled in criminal court. Traffic courts are normally less formal than criminal courts. And, in most states, a person accused of a traffic violation doesn’t have the right to a jury trial: If the person decides to go to trial, the case will be decided by a judge.
(Learn more about the difference between traffic tickets and more serious crimes.)
For every traffic citation, you’ll need to decide whether to fight or admit the violation. Admitting a violation is the fastest and easiest way of dealing with it: Most states allow drivers to admit a traffic violation by paying a fine online, by mail, or in person at the administrative office of the courthouse. However, when you resolve your ticket this way, you may end up paying more than you otherwise would, and the violation will likely add points to your driving record and lead to an insurance-rate increase. (Some judges—in jurisdictions where the law allows it—will reduce the fine of a driver who comes to court and pleads guilty.)
Fighting a ticket, on the other hand, gives you a chance of evading these negative consequences altogether. But contesting a violation involves spending time going to court and possibly preparing your case (or paying an attorney to fight the case for you). And at the end of it, there’s no guarantee that you’ll win. If you lose, you’ll basically be in the same situation as would have been had you pled guilty.
Fortunately, most states offer traffic school (also called “defensive driving” and “driving safety” class) as a middle-of-the-road option. The specifics of traffic school vary by jurisdiction. But generally, it’s a way for eligible motorists to keep their driving record clean and avoid insurance-rate hikes—though traffic school participants typically must pay for the course and, in some states, must also pay the citation fine.
SHOULD YOU HIRE A LAWYER TO FIGHT YOUR TRAFFIC TICKET?
In criminal cases, defendants are almost always represented by an attorney. Attorneys are less common in traffic cases. Motorists who decide to plead guilty or accept traffic school might not benefit much from hiring a lawyer. But for drivers who opt to fight their ticket, hiring an attorney has some clear advantages. By hiring an attorney, you typically won’t have to go to court yourself and an experienced traffic attorney might give you a better chance of winning.
Contesting a traffic citation begins with pleading not guilty. In many jurisdictions, a motorist who wishes to plead not guilty must come to court and do so in front of the judge. The judge will then set a date for trial and order the motorist and citing officer to come back to court on that date.
(Some states also permit drivers to plead not guilty and fight their ticket in writing—often called trial by “affidavit” or “declaration.”)
In all jurisdictions, the government must prove your guilt. Otherwise, the judge or jury is supposed to find you not guilty. However, trial procedures vary depending on where you’re at. In some states, prosecutors represent the government in traffic trails. But in other states, it’s completely up to the citing officer to prove your guilt.
Traffic trials typically start out with the citing officer testifying to his or her version of events. The defendant then has an opportunity to ask the officer questions. Once the officer’s testimony is finished, the defendant gets to present witnesses and other evidence. For example, a defendant who’s accused of running a stop light might call an eyewitness who can testify to seeing the defendant cross into the intersection before the light turned red. Or, in fighting a stop sign ticket, a defendant might present photos and a map showing the officer didn’t have a clear view of the intersection where the violation allegedly occurred.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge (or jury) will either find you guilty or not guilty. A finding of not guilty means you beat the ticket. However, if the judge finds you guilty, you’ll have to pay a fine and the violation will likely go on your record.
(In some areas, it’s possible for a driver to request and be granted traffic school after losing at trial.)