If you've decided to fight a traffic ticket, you want to put up the best legal defense you can. In most cases, you only have one chance in traffic court to convince a judge to dismiss your citation. Be sure your argument is strong and supported by the right evidence.
A good place to start is to reference your actual citation. You should see the name of the violation (like "running a red light") along with the traffic law code section. Start your online research using these two pieces of information. Understanding the traffic law police accused you of violating will help you select the most effective defense.
Here are five reliable defense strategies for fighting traffic tickets.
1. Dispute the Police Officer's Personal Opinion
Police officers often cite drivers for driving unsafely, particularly for unsafe turns or lane changes. These citations often require the officer to put down their opinion and come to an objective conclusion. If you got a ticket where the officer needed to exercise personal judgment, you can challenge that judgment.
For example, suppose police cite you for an unsafe lane change on the highway. You can argue that your lane change was safe, given the weather and traffic conditions. To further support your argument, you could point out that the officer was driving in front of you during the lane change. In heavy traffic conditions, an officer in front of you paid more attention to the road ahead rather than a car changing lanes behind.
Some states allow police to issue subjective tickets. These states give law enforcement more flexibility in determining if a motorist is driving at a safe speed. In these states (including California and Texas), the posted speed limit is not always a clear-cut law. This means that a driver can travel at a safe speed as long as road and traffic conditions permit. If you got a speeding ticket in such a state, you can challenge the officer's opinion if you can prove your speed was still safe, given the conditions.
An example would be driving 75 mph in a 65 mph because traffic around you was also traveling at 75 mph. You could argue that your safety would have been at risk driving at or below 65 mph.
2. Dispute the Police Officer's Presentation of Evidence
There are types of tickets where motorists cannot question the officer's judgment. These tickets involve clear-cut infractions like running a stop sign or making an illegal U-turn. Here, challenging a ticket involves questioning if the officer saw you perform the ticketed action.
In these cases, you will have a high burden to overcome. But there are arguments and evidence you can present that may help call into question the officer's observations.
Some of the best arguments and evidence to defend against these types of citations include:
- Eyewitness statements from passengers, other drivers, or pedestrians who can confirm your story.
- Diagrams that show where your car was in relation to the officer at the time of the citation. For instance, an effective diagram would show that the officer could not have seen you run a red light because he was too far behind to see if your car was in the intersection when the light turned.
- Photographs of the scene of the alleged traffic offense. Pictures are especially helpful if they show your claim clearly. For example, a photo of an overhanging limb obscuring a stop sign or a traffic signal that was out of power. Be sure to take the photos soon after the traffic stop, at the same time of day of the citation.
3. Present Evidence That the Traffic Violation Was a 'Mistake of Fact'
For certain tickets, like driving the wrong way on an empty one-way street, you can present evidence that circumstances justify your violation because you made a "mistake of fact."
A mistake of fact is a mistake made by a driver about a situation that was beyond their control. Mistakes of fact can also mean that a driver honestly and reasonably believes they are following the law. But this doesn't mean you can claim you weren't aware of the law.
As an example, it could be a mistake of fact if you were driving in two lanes because the lane markers were so worn down that you could not see them. Another example would be driving the wrong way down a one-way because the sign had recently gotten graffiti on it, and there were no other cars on the road.
Often, a judge will dismiss a ticket if you can show that you had inadequate notice of a change in traffic regulation. For example, suppose you drive a stretch of road every day and one day get a ticket for running a stop sign that you don't recall ever being there before. The new sign was just installed the previous day. You could argue that you had insufficient notice about the new sign and made a mistake of fact.
But, if the stop sign was up long enough for you to know about it, if you had never driven that stretch of road before, or if you were driving recklessly and failed to see the sign — you probably would not win this argument.
4. Argue That Circumstances Justified Your Driving
For this particular strategy, you don't deny or point out mistakes in the ticketing process. Instead, you admit to illegal driving but present information that deems the unlawful driving justified. This is an effective way to fight a ticket because you do not have to dispute the officer's statement or the charge. Instead, you show circumstances that necessitated your driving.
For instance, if you got a ticket on the highway for speeding, you may present evidence that you were passing a possibly drunken driver. This vehicle was drifting across lanes and otherwise driving erratically. In this situation, you were trying to keep yourself safe and avoid an accident.
But, this defense wouldn't work if the officer could prove that you kept your high speed even after passing the other vehicle. It would also strengthen your argument if you reported the potential impaired driver to law enforcement or 911 when safely able to do so.
As another example, suppose you get a ticket for changing lanes recklessly and stopping on a highway. You can fight the ticket by showing that you felt waves of dizziness while driving and feared you would lose consciousness. You pulled over your car and stopped immediately to avoid passing out while driving. A judge could agree that circumstances justified your conduct because of the emergency medical situation.
If you sought treatment at a hospital after your citation, you would also want to submit proof of your medical visit.
5. Argue That Your Ticketed Driving Was Necessary To Prevent Harm
This defense is like the one above in that you illustrate how your ticketed driving was necessary to prevent immediate harm to you or others. An example is swerving to avoid hitting a pedestrian falling off a sidewalk and into your driving lane. An evasive action used to prevent a collision could also use this defense. The key to this argument is to show a judge that if you had not driven the way you did, someone could have gotten seriously injured.
You could use this defense if your citation was for dialing your cell phone while driving, but you were reporting an accident you just saw. If you still got a ticket for this despite telling the police officer, a traffic court judge is more likely to hear your case.
What Not to Do: Ineffective Defenses
There are some well-known strategies for fighting a traffic ticket that are rarely effective. Misconceptions exist about the effectiveness of some commonly believed defenses. While state laws and the circumstances of your citation will influence the outcome of your argument, you are less likely to succeed if you use the following excuses in traffic court:
- Claiming ignorance: Saying you weren't aware of the speed limit or didn't know your lane change was unlawful usually doesn't work. Drivers must know and follow traffic laws.
- Looking for a loophole: Minor errors on a traffic ticket, like having your name misspelled, usually don't invalidate a citation.
- Faking a personal emergency: Saying you were speeding due to an urgent situation (like a sick child or pet) isn't a viable defense unless you can show strong evidence.
Get Legal Help From a Traffic Ticket Attorney
There are circumstances when you should hire a lawyer to help contest a traffic citation. If a ticket will significantly increase your auto insurance rates or lead to a license suspension, it is a good idea to speak with a traffic law attorney.
An attorney experienced with the traffic laws in your area can offer legal advice and help you determine the best course of action. An attorney who can help you convince a judge to dismiss your ticket can save you money on insurance premiums, preserve your driving record, and keep your driver's license.
See FindLaw's How to Fight a Ticket section for more articles and resources.