Is it really worth it to fight a traffic ticket? It's certainly possible, but fighting traffic tickets can take a lot of time and effort and may not be worth it in the long run, even if you ultimately prevail. For instance, the money or opportunity lost by taking a day off work for your hearing may cost more than the actual ticket -- even if you're clearly in the right. But if a ticket means thousands of dollars in increased insurance premiums, however, it may be very worthwhile to fight it.
Understand the Law You Are Alleged to Have Violated
Most police officers don't really know the letter of the law -- after all, that's what attorneys are for. An easy first step in fighting traffic tickets is to read the exact law you're alleged to have violated, and break it down into elements. Once you've broken the law down into its components, if you can show that your behavior didn't meet the exact prohibitions contained in the law, then you've gone a good ways towards showing that youhaven't violated the law at all. Here's an actual stop sign law, with brackets to separate different elements of the law:
"[A person] [operating a human-powered vehicle] [approaching a stop sign shall slow down] and, [if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection]. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, [the person shall yield the right-of-way to] [any vehicle] [in the intersection] or [approaching on another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving across] or [within the intersection or junction of highways], [except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping]."
Some elements you can't really challenge (you are a person after all), but notice that stopping isn't actually required! It's only necessary if it is "required for safety" and the law explicitly allows you to "cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping."
Chances are good that the police officer wrote down something like "rolled through intersection without a complete stop." You can easily go into court, lay out the law, and demonstrate that you never violated the law in the first place. Will a judge accept this? Absolutely. This is precisely what lawyers do, they break down laws into elements and try to prove that some element wasn't met. Remember, you're innocent until proven guilty.
Don't Pay the Ticket, It's Often an Admission of Guilt
When you first get your ticket, do not pay it if you have any doubts as to whether it can be successfully fought. In almost all jurisdictions, paying the fine is an admission of guilt. Instead, find out how you can get your day in court.
Consider Traffic School
Many jurisdictions offer an option to attend traffic school. In return, your charges will be dismissed or reduced. Explore this option by researching the law in your state. If you find that traffic school is a good option, request it from the prosecutor or judge.
Common Defenses to a Traffic Ticket
There are several typical defenses used when fighting traffic tickets. Many of the defenses below are based on your constitutional right to question the accuser:
1. The Officer Doesn't Show Up
The easiest way to win is to have the police officer not show up. Because you have a constitutional right to question the accuser, if the officer doesn't show, you will typically automatically win. How can you increase your chances of getting a no show?
- Postponing the court date can significantly increase the odds that the officer will not be present during the trial.
- Never go with the date on your ticket. That's usually a "gang date" for the officer, where the officer has scheduled all of his or her court dates at once. If you schedule for an extension that falls on a different day, chances are they aren't going to come in on their day off just for you.
- Try to choose a court date that is closer to the holidays or summer vacation days - this might increase the odds of your officer being out on vacation.
2. Camera Tickets and Hearsay
People often think that there's little they can do with a camera based ticket, but they're amazingly easy to beat. Here are some tips:
- Courthouses will rarely go through the trouble of bringing the video or picture to court, usually resulting in an automatic dismissal of the ticket.
- Even if they do, there is no human subject to question other than the officer who viewed the tape. The second the officer opens his mouth, you just object "hearsay". If the officer didn't actually see you do anything, he or she is relying on the observations of someone/something else. As a result, the officer can't testify as to what you did wrong and obviously neither can the camera.
3. Trial by Declaration
In many states, you are entitled to a trial by mail. You submit your claim as to why you are innocent in a letter, and the officer must do the same. While officers will often show up for court because it is an overtime opportunity, trial by mail is pure paperwork, and they will often not bother to submit their side of the story. When this happens, you win by default. Should you lose by mail, you have lost nothing: you can still request an in-person trial, request traffic school, or pay your fine.
4. The Sixth Amendment Requires a Speedy and Public Trial
The sixth amendment guarantees you a speedy and public trial, and this can be an easy basis to avoid a ticket. For example, in California, a speedy trial is defined as 45 days from the time of the infraction. In many jurisdictions you must go to the courthouse in person to get a court date. Among those legal documents you are asked to sign, will be one in which you waive your right to a speedy trial. Do not sign this document. You cannot be legally forced to waive this right. What this means is that if the court system cannot fit you in, within those 45 days, (times for your state may vary) then your case must be dismissed.
5. Tickets Based on Radar Guns
Most radar guns need to be recalibrated every 30-60 days, and due to ignorance, lack of funding, or laziness, they rarely are. One solid argument for your case is to prove that the measurement device is faulty. In some states the officer must check the calibration after issuing the speeding ticket -- usually by using two tuning forks held in front of the radar, which vibrate at the frequencies for 35 mph and 55 mph. Verify whether this was done and documented.
6. Check Your Ticket for Errors
While courts will often excuse minor errors on a ticket – a misspelled name or whether your car color is maroon or dark red – if the officer cites the wrong law on the ticket, or grossly misidentifies the highway or your make of car, you may to get your ticket dismissed.
Defenses That Don't Work
The following is a short list of common defenses people often make when fighting traffic tickets that just don't work:
- You claim ignorance of the law. It doesn't matter how honestly you misunderstood what was required, it won't work.
- You argue that no one was hurt. The no-harm-no-foul rule doesn't apply in court. The only exception is whether safety is part of the law itself, and you can argue that obviously you operated your vehicle safely because no one was hurt.
- You complain that the officer selected you alone out of a dozen other potential violators. Admitting that you were in fact guilty, but that there were other guilty people present doesn't help you.
- You give the judge a sad story. It doesn't work, judges hear this all day long and may doubt your honesty. At best this will slightly reduce your fine.
- You claim the officer is lying. Between you and the police officer, the judge is more likely to believe the officer. Unless you have specific proof, it won't work.
Have a Traffic Attorney Help You Defend Against a Ticket
Most drivers simply pay their traffic tickets without question, while others are able to apply the above defenses to their situation. However, sometimes it pays to get professional legal help, particularly when the stakes are high. Talk to a traffic ticket attorney near you for some peace of mind.