How to Fight a Traffic Ticket

Traffic Stop
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Millions of drivers are pulled over and issued traffic tickets in the United States each year, yet very few of these tickets are ever contested in a court of law. That's because paying a ticket is a whole lot easier than fighting one, and besides you probably did what the officer said you did, even though you're not quite certain. Two problems with this. First, you might really believe that you weren't speeding when you got that speeding ticket.

And second, paying a ticket just to make it go away has real consequences beyond the one to your pocket book. Don't forget that a traffic ticket is technically a criminal violation. So, if you think it's time to stand up to the challenge, here's my advice on how to fight a traffic ticket.

When First Pulled Over

The process of fighting a traffic ticket begins when you first notice the flashing lights in your rearview mirror. Remember to be polite to and cooperative with the officer, even when you think you've done nothing wrong. If you are belligerent, the officer is less likely to cut you a break and, more to the issue of fighting your citation in court, likely to describe your belligerence to the judge. And judges don't like rude defendants.

Being polite, however, does not include admitting guilt. Just being pulled over causes some people to feel the urge to apologize the moment the officer reaches the driver's window.

It's the reason the officer's first question is always, "Do you know why I pulled you over?" Resist the urge to say "yes" unless you are absolutely certain of your own guilt and have no intention of ever fighting a citation in court. You should definitely ask the officer how he or she detected the offense and you may even (politely) disagree with his or her conclusion, but only for the record.

Then keep your mouth shut and graciously accept the ticket. The real fight is yet to come.

Immediately After Receiving Your Ticket

Pull over again as soon as it's safe and write down a detailed description of your stop. Also, revisit the scene of the incident and take a look at it from the officer's point-of-view. What you are looking for here are things like whether or not the officer had an unobstructed view of what happened. Take pictures and make diagrams if necessary. Talk to any witnesses and get their contact information. All of this will likely come in handy if you go to court.

Request a Trial and Don't Pay Your Ticket

Check your ticket to see what you are required to do.  There are usually two options: paying the fine or going to court. In some jurisdictions, the ticket will designate a court appearance date. In others, you will need to contact the court and request a trial date. Follow the instructions on the ticket carefully. Remember, by paying your fine you are admitting guilt. So if you've paid the ticket, you can call it a day.

Decide if You Need an Attorney

This usually depends on either the severity (penalty cost) of the infraction or the effect on the driver's overall record or both.

For example, you should almost always hire an attorney if you are charged with DUI. With a run-of-the-mill minor infraction, however, it's probably not cost-effective. Whether you hire one or not, it might be worthwhile to consult an attorney to better understand your legal rights and get some advice. Many attorneys will provide you with a brief consultation at little or no cost.

Plea Bargain

Trial courts are clogged with cases pretty much everywhere, so most are willing to negotiate with you in order to alleviate their backlog. There are a lot of possibilities here, but options vary by jurisdiction. You have to decide what it is you are fighting the ticketfor and act accordingly. For a lot of people, the main concern is their driving record and its effect on their insurance rates. It may be possible to come to an agreement with the prosecutor that allows you to avoid damage to your record and insurance.

This is what's known as a plea bargain. There's a good chance that you will be able to plead to an infraction that will have a lesser effect on your record and maybe even avoid its reporting to your insurer. You will still have to pay a fine, however.

Additionally, some courts offer what is known as "deferred adjudication," which delays the formal process for a period of time, often one year. Again, you will likely have to pay the fine and may have to attend driving class. You will also be, in a sense, on probation during that time. If you avoid any other moving violations, your initial charge will be dismissed and typically won't  show up on your record.

Discovery

As the defendant in your case, you have a right to obtain before trial the information and evidence that the prosecutor intends to submit against you. This is known as "discovery." You will probably have to make a formal request to get it, but it will allow you the opportunity to check the prosecutor's evidence for mistakes and inconsistencies. Contact the court for discovery procedures.

Delay

One tactic to consider is rescheduling your court date. Most jurisdictions require the officer that issued your ticket to appear in court for your hearing. Police officers are very busy and often can't make the time to show up. If you can delay your hearing one or more times, you increase the likelihood of the officer missing your court date. And if he or she fails to show up, you win.

Trial

If all else fails, you will end up at trial. The first thing to do is to relax, it's not as scary as you think. Remember to plead not guilty and present your case as clearly and simply as possible. Here are a few possible arguments to make:

  • Disputing the Issuing Officer: The plan is to dispute the officer's observation of what happened and his or her conclusion that a violation occurred. It often boils down to who the judge believes, you or the officer. In most cases, it will be the officer unless you can provide evidence to the contrary. Here's where all of that information gathered at the scene will come in handy, especially if you can present the testimony of an impartial third-party witness. Whatever you have in the way of evidence to dispute the officer's observations and opinions, this is the time to use it.
  • Mistake of Fact: This is where you argue that you may have technically committed the violation, but your error was due to a reasonable mistake. For example, if the charge is that you ran a stop sign, you may be able to argue that the sign was obscured by a tree or bush at the time. Another example might be that you passed another vehicle illegally, but the road markings were so worn that you did not see them.
  • Justification and Necessity: In this case, you don't dispute that you committed the infraction, but that you were justified in doing so and therefore should not be punished. For example, if you were cited for swerving into an oncoming lane of traffic, you might be able to argue that you did so to avoid hitting an animal running across the road.

After Trial

Once the judge has made his or her decision, it's finished. If the ruling is against you, you have the right to appeal, but it's almost never cost-effective, so you will likely pay your fine and move on. If the ruling is in your favor, congratulations. You've proven to yourself and to others that you can fight a traffic ticket and win.

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