Traffic Tickets: Representing Yourself in Traffic Court Part I - 2020
Lawyers are asked all the time if “I should contest the traffic ticket I received.” Our general answer has two parts:
- It might make the most sense to hire an attorney to help you in traffic court.
- If there are facts and evidence that indicate it is right and correct to contest a ticket you should.
While the attorney route is always preferred, many do not have the resources for an attorney. If you want to see what is involved, here are some helpful hints on exactly what you will encounter if you decide to represent yourself in traffic court.
This series is divided into three sections:
- Understanding how to prepare your case for trial
- Understanding evidence and what you can bring into court
- Conducting a trial in traffic court
Since the American legal system has 50+ sets of laws, rules and requirements, and since everything in the law is subject to an exception, here are a few assumptions to help you:
- The best decision you can make is to have a lawyer.
- All the following information is general in nature and is not designed to be legal advice for your specific case.
- Since there are so many exceptions, we have chosen to discuss a few different examples of situations and the most important parts of related discussions.
- We cannot guarantee any results or outcomes if you read this.
- We do believe this will help you, but it is not conclusive. Other legal terms and proceedings can apply to your case that we will not discuss.
Part I. Understanding How to Prepare Your Case for Trial
How to Handle Being Pulled Over:
We are often asked what excuses work and do not work when you are in the process of being pulled over and possibly getting the ticket. Let’s start there.
A few excuses that could work if the circumstances are present:
- “Sir, I was maintaining the speed limit throughout my drive. All of a sudden, I was behind an old dump truck that was throwing out rocks and pebbles and I had to speed up just to get around the truck, so the rocks did not break my windshield. You must have caught me at the 3 seconds that I was trying to get around the truck.”
- “Sir, my foot stuck in the carpet as I was trying to hit the brake and I sped up accidentally. You must have ‘shot’ me in the couple of seconds where I could not free my foot.”
- “Sir, I thought my child was choking on their goldfish crackers, and I reached around to pull the food out of their mouth. I must have hit the gas pedal and accidentally sped up. My child was okay, but it took a few minutes to get the food out of his mouth.”
A few excuses that will likely not work:
- “Sir, I was going the same speed as traffic was moving. Everyone was going the same speed. If I slowed down to the speed limit, I would have been run off the road.”
- “Sir, I was only going 3 miles over the speed limit.”
Why might a few excuses work and others might not work?
It is related to the legal concepts underlying the body of criminal law. Traffic tickets are usually considered criminal law, although in many states they can be considered civil. The primary concept in criminal law is that one must have an intent to commit an act that the law defines as a crime. Without the intent to commit a crime, one usually cannot be convicted of a crime. Traffic court and certain very minor crimes (e.g., jaywalking) may not have this required intent as obvious in the law, but it can be implied.
This intent concept means that a person must have intended to commit the act of which they are accused. For our purposes, it is required that the driver must have intended to speed. This intent is why some excuses may work and others clearly do not. The excuses in the “do not work” category do not generally work because the driver admits to intending to break the speed limit (the law). Implied in the excuse that “I was going as fast as everyone else” is the knowledge that you were speeding. By telling the police officer this, you are effectively admitting you broke the law. The same with the excuse that “I was only going 3 mph over the speed limit.” Inherent in that statement is an admission you know you broke the law.
In the excuses that might work category, you can see that the intent factor may not be present. In the “I was trying to get around the truck and not get my windshield broken,” there is no admission that you intended to speed up. You might have, but all you were intending to do is get out of the way.
In the “my foot was stuck,” excuse, again there is no intent to speed, and no admission that you were speeding intentionally. Anything that happened after the foot was stuck is inadvertent. Finally, the baby choking excuse is exactly the same as there is no intent to speed, just an intent to keep the baby alive.
Nothing will guarantee these will work, but it is obviously better if you never get the ticket in the first place.
Remember, that in most cases, everything you say will possibly be written down in the notes on the ticket or in the computer, so the police officer can recall it if the case goes to trial. If it is one of the admission statements above, you might likely face this as a barrier at trial if you are ticketed anyway despite a lack of intent to speed. Given this, it is best to say nothing. Simply stating “Sir, I was not speeding” does not hurt you at trial. You probably will get the ticket, however.
Assuming You Have Been Cited:
In most cases today, if you are caught speeding you could be cited. If you are cited, your defense begins. You have to prepare for trial before you go. The best preparation ensures the best possible chance a judge might believe you and side with you. Preparation, however, requires time and effort. You will either have to retain an attorney and pay them (our recommendation) or undertake the time yourself.
Should you contest the ticket?
Generally, you have three choices once you receive a citation:
- Plead guilty or no contest and pay the ticket violation and fine before the date on the ticket. (for our purposes no contest and guilty are the same thing).
- Contest the ticket and do not pay.
- Pay the ticket, and if you have not had many tickets recently, you might go to defensive driving school, take the course and then have the ticket dropped after a few months of a probation period, assuming you get no other tickets during the probation period. You might even get a discount on your insurance for taking the defensive driving course.
If you decide to contest the ticket, you should know that if you lose, you will be charged (usually) extra fees and fines for court time, and you will give up the right to be able to take a defensive course to dismiss the ticket. If you are going to contest you should be sure you have a defense of some solid kind.
Contesting the Charges:
For our purposes, we will assume that you want to contest the ticket and that you filed the appropriate paperwork (varies by location/county). You then learn your court date for your trial. That is the date you must appear, or a bench warrant (in some jurisdictions) could be placed on your record. That means if you are pulled over and the bench warrant is outstanding, the police could arrest you and take you to court where you might be jailed.
In order to contest the charges, you have to know what statements and objects, called evidence, you can bring into court. As you will see, not everything can be brought into court. Evidence rules exist to ensure the court process is as truthful as it can be and to make sure it is as fair for the defendant in a criminal case as it can be.