Traffic Tickets: When to Fight and What To Do
Getting a traffic ticket is always inconvenient, but there are times when it also can be a serious matter. What should you do? When should you fight? Even though police officers can make mistakes, realize that they still enjoy substantial legal advantages:
- The officer wins in court when it is your word against the officer's.
- The officer will win unless you bring witnesses to court.
- The officer may even be paid overtime to attend court.
- The officer seems to "know the law."
- You are on your own to defend yourself.
- You must build your own case.
Should you hire a lawyer?
It can be a "tough call" to decide whether to get an attorney and fight charges for a moving violation. Some compelling reasons to hire a lawyer include:
- You are at risk for having your license suspended.
- You might go to jail for the ticket you received (for example, severe reckless driving or "hit and run").
- The violation is linked to an accident that caused serious injuries or a death.
- The violation involves resisting arrest.
Otherwise, a lawyer usually is not needed for a traffic violation. Many states even offer a first-time violator the option of attending defensive driving classes and having the ticket "wiped off" his/her record.
Should you fight the ticket?
If you decide not to hire a lawyer and not to take a defensive driving class, when should you represent yourself and fight the charges in court? Consider these issues when making that decision:
- the severity of the offense;
- whether there is an objective, credible witness who can tell a story that will excuse your alleged conduct;
- possible excuses for your behavior;
- the other parties' bad conduct;
- extenuating circumstances (such as the police officer targeting you because of your race, sex, dress, etc.)
If your case has some merit, it may be worth trying to fight the ticket. Just know that you will need to make several court appearances and be present for a trial, usually before a judge. And, keep in mind that courts often impose double penalties on motorists who challenge a ticket and lose, in order to discourage drivers from fighting every citation.
Excuses that don't work
The following common excuses may seem tempting, but probably won't help your case:
- "I was going with the flow of traffic."
- "Why didn't you stop the other four speeding cars?"
- "I was only going five miles per hour over the speed limit."
These statements are admissions of guilt. They tell the court that you broke the law! None of the extenuating circumstances matter.
- "I didn't see the speed limit sign."
- "I didn't see the stop sign."
- "My contacts were foggy and I didn't see the speedometer."
It is your responsibility to see the stop sign, observe the speed limit and check your speedometer. If you can't drive safely, it's your duty to stop the car. The court usually will return a quick conviction based on these kinds of excuses.
- "I thought you could make a U-turn anytime."
Ignorance of the law is never a good excuse! If you made an innocent mistake and unintentionally broke the law, this can seem unfair. Nevertheless, don't expect a judge to dismiss the charges simply because you didn't know the rules.
Build a better argument
Generally, you can bolster your chance of success by bringing objective evidence, pictures, research from the scene and diagrams. Also, remember that you will be given an opportunity to cross-examine the police officer. Prepare questions that will prove the key facts in your case. Maintain a professional attitude.
The following suggestions can help strengthen your defense against the most common violations:
Bring proof that you were not speeding, such as:
- testimony from impartial witnesses;
- facts showing the officer did not see you speeding;
- facts showing it was physically impossible to speed;
- testimony from a car mechanic stating that your car's speedometer was faulty;
- speed/distance-traveled analysis: Examine the police officer and ask him to tell the court how fast you were traveling. Then perform measurements to show at 35 mph, for example, you could not have traveled from point A to point B.
- proof that others drivers passed you; they may or may not have been speeding, but it is more likely that you will be passed if you are not speeding (this argument rarely works unless you have additional evidence to substantiate your claim); or
- testimony from a qualified expert contesting the radar gun reading.
Running a stop sign
Bring proof that you did stop. This can include:
- testimony from impartial witnesses;
- facts showing the officer did not or could not see you stop;
- facts showing exactly what you did to stop;
- pictures showing facts;
- speed/distance-traveled-when-stopped analysis : Examine the police officer and ask him to tell the court how fast you were traveling. Then perform measurements to show at 35 mph, for example, you could not have traveled from point A to point B.
For parking/registration violations, it almost never pays to hire a lawyer. You also should consider whether you want to invest your time in fighting a parking ticket, especially if you will have to miss work to appear in court.
If you decide to proceed, build your case with diagrams and photographs showing that the parking signs were unclear or absent. You may want to research the parking ordinances in your city.
Tickets related to accidents
Tickets related to car accidents can be serious because they help to show the fault of one party. However, tickets are not dispositive, meaning that it is not necessarily conclusive evidence that the person receiving the ticket was violating the law (a ticket is the officer's opinion that the law was broken.) In a "fender bender" this may not be a problem, but in a serious injury or death accident, a ticket can be used to help establish liability. Liability becomes a factor when the injured party seeks monetary damages or a settlement. At the scene, try to avoid being given a citation that faults you for the accident. You also should consider talking with an experienced attorney about potential liability.
If the accident was not your fault, but you received a citation, you should hire a lawyer as soon as possible. A lawyer can help you:
- preserve evidence in the form of witness statements;
- investigate the accident scene;
- document evidence; and/or
- negotiate with your insurance company and get them to consider denying liability.