A number of methods exist for contesting traffic tickets. Disputing an officer’s personal opinion, offering evidence that the cited driving was necessary due to road conditions and demonstrating that a citation was made in error are all ways of potentially having traffic tickets overturned. But is fighting a ticket always the best idea?
Determine if Contesting a Ticket is the Best Plan
First, assess if it’s a good use of your time to contest a citation. While it’s possible to win, fighting a traffic ticket can be a drain on time and effort, and in the long run it may not be worth it. If a citation would result in higher insurance premiums to the tune of thousands of dollars, however, it may be worth the time to fight.
Study the Law You’re Accused of Violating
Many law enforcement officers do not understand the details of laws. That’s what lawyers are for, after all! A good beginning step for contesting traffic citations is to study the precise law you’re accused of breaking, and separate it into its component parts. After you’ve separated the various elements of the law, you may be able to prove that you did not break the law if you can demonstrate that your conduct did not meet the precise thresholds laid out in the law. Below is a breakdown of the many elements that make up a specific law, in this case pertaining to stop signs. The element is listed, with the exact language from the law provided in brackets:
- Alleged violator: [a person].
- Mode of transport: [human-powered vehicle].
- Action: [approaching a stop sign].
- Requirement: [shall slow down].
- Special conditions: [if required for safety].
- Actions in the event of special conditions: [stop before entering the intersection.]
Contesting even a very small aspect of a specific law can lead a judge to overturn a citation. Some aspects cannot be effectively challenged (for example, being a person), but the requirement “shall slow down” does not require fully stopping. It’s only mandatory in the event of a special condition: “required for safety.” In this case, the law allows a motorist to carefully turn or go through the intersection without stopping.
An officer who makes a citation in this case may note that a motorist did not make a complete stop and rolled through an intersection. In court, you can mention specifics of the law and show that you did not violate the law. Most judges will accept such arguments. Lawyers operate in the same manner, by breaking laws into their components and attempting to show that a specific element was not applicable. Accused persons are innocent until they are proven to be guilty.
Paying a Ticket Can be an Admission of Guilt
When you are cited, do not pay the ticket right away. In most areas, paying a fine is the same as admitting guilt. Instead of paying, check into how you can appear in court.
Think About Attending Traffic School
Many areas allow offenders the option of attending traffic school. In exchange, charges are reduced or dismissed. Check into this option by reading the laws for your state. If you learn that traffic school is a possibility, ask the prosecutor or judge if you can attend.
Frequent Ways to Defend a Traffic Ticket
Various defenses are used when contesting traffic citations. Some of the defenses listed below are rooted in the constitutional right of a defendant to question an accuser.
The Officer Does not Attend Court
One of the simplest ways to win a case is that the officer does not come to court. Since a defendant has a right to question an accuser, defendants often win automatically when officers don’t show up. There are some ways to better the odds of an officer not coming to court:
- Delaying the court date can greatly increase the chances that an officer will not attend the trial.
- Don’t simply agree to the date on the citation. Officers typically schedule all their court appearances at one time. If you delay your appearance to a different day, it’s possible the officer won’t come to court for one case.
- Attempt to select a court date near the holidays or summer break. This could better the chances of an officer being away on vacation.
Hearsay and Tickets From Cameras
Many people think they cannot contest a ticket based on a camera, but such tickets are often easy to beat. Below are some methods:
- Courts often do not undertake the hassle of having the pictures or video available in court, which often means that the ticket is automatically thrown out.
- Even if the pictures or video are available in court, there is no human witness to answer questions other than the police officer who reviewed the photographic evidence. When an officer in such a case begins to testify, a defendant can object that the testimony is “hearsay,” which courts do not consider to be reliable. The officer did not actually see the defendant break the law, so the officer cannot effectively describe the transgression.
Trial by Mail
In some states, defendants can have a trial by mail. Defendants send an explanation of why they are not guilty, and the law enforcement officer does the same thing. Officers often attend court because it is a chance to earn overtime pay, but they often don’t bother with trials by mail because it adds to their paperwork load. In this case, a defendant automatically wins. If you lose in a trial by mail, you still can ask for a trial in person. You can also ask to attend traffic school or simply pay the fine.
The Sixth Amendment: A Public, Speedy Trial
Under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, defendants have the right to a public and speedy trial. This can be an easy way of having a ticket overturned. For instance, in California, a trial must occur within 45 days of the citation. In some areas, a defendant must go to the courthouse to schedule a court date. Among the legal papers a defendant must sign is one that gives up the right to a speedy trial. It is not a good idea to sign this, because you cannot be forced under the law to give up this constitutional right. If the court cannot schedule you within the mandated time frame, the citation must be dropped.
Radar Gun Speeding Citations
Many radar guns must be recalibrated every month or two. Because of laziness, lack of funding or lack of knowledge, this rarely happens. A good argument for a defendant in such a case is that the radar device is faulty. In some states, the law enforcement officer must confirm the calibration after issuing a citation, typically through the use of two tuning forks that are held in front of the radar gun. The tuning forks vibrate at frequencies for 55 miles per hour and 35 miles per hour. You should confirm whether this was done and whether it was documented in writing.
Review a Citation for Mistakes
Courts often overlook minor mistakes on citations, such as a name spelled incorrectly or the color of a car. However, if the officer names the incorrect law on the citation, names the wrong street or type of car, the citation may be dismissed.
Below are some commonly used defenses that do not work when contesting traffic citations:
- Claiming that you were not aware of the law. Even if you honestly did not understand the requirements, this defense doesn’t work.
- Arguing that no one was injured. This doesn’t apply in court. An exception may be if safety is specifically mentioned in the law. In this case, you can argue that you clearly operated your vehicle in a safe manner, since no one was injured.
- Complaining that an officer singled you out among many guilty people. Admitting guilt but pointing out that other people were also guilty won’t help you. Although it is possible to win with a defense that argues selective enforcement of the law, it is not easy. It requires proving that an officer has a specific reason to single you out. For example, if you complained about an officer who cites you for a violation the next day while a number of other violators are nearby, you might win.
- Giving the judge a sad tale. Judges hear this constantly and may not believe you. At best, such a tactic might reduce your fine slightly.
- Claiming that an officer is not being honest. Judges are more likely to believe police officers, unless you have specific evidence.
Receiving a traffic ticket can be a traumatic experience that often results in the quickest possible resolution involving the least hassle. Fighting a ticket isn’t always the easiest route, and it takes courage to stand up in court and contest something a police officer says. But fighting a ticket can be worth it for both your driving record and your insurance rates.