Should You Fight Your Traffic Ticket?

The pros and cons of fighting a ticket

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If you’ve been issued a traffic ticket, you may ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • Should I just pay the ticket and forget it?
  • Is there a way to wipe this ticket off my record?
  • If I pay the ticket, will my insurance rates go up?
  • Do I have legal grounds to fight the ticket?
  • Can I lose my license?

If you decide to fight the ticket, several things will happen:

  • You will spend at least several hours and probably many more preparing to fight the ticket.
  • You’ll worry about making a good court presentation.
  • You’ll spend half a day or more going back and forth to court and arguing your case.

If you don’t fight the ticket, you could end up doing some or all of the following:

  • spending money and many hours in traffic school to clear your record
  • paying a hefty fine and having the ticket appear on your driving record
  • If you have had another recent ticket, paying higher insurance premiums for the next three to five years, or
  • if you have had several recent tickets, losing your driving privileges.

Are Tickets Impossible toBeat?

The answer is: absolutely not. Many tickets are given in situations where even the ­officer knows that a motorist who puts up a spirited defense might win. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the officer will cut back in handing out marginal tickets. That’s because the officer also knows that only about 3% of ticketed drivers contest their citations. And furthermore, many of those who do fight are so unprepared and nervous that they beat themselves, not their citation.

Does It Make Sense to Fight a Particular Ticket?

Common sense would say “no” if there is a small chance of winning and “yes” if the officer clearly screwed up. Still, for most tickets, guilt or innocence is not so clear cut, meaning that you’ll normally want to consider a number of factors, including the consequences of paying your fine—which is the same thing as pleading guilty.

Always prepare to contest serious violations. If you’re charged with anything that could land you in jail—like reckless or drunk driving—it is almost always wise to at least take the first steps necessary to fight the charge. In most states this consists of telling the court clerk you want to plead not guilty and then actually going to court to enter your plea. Doing this will give you time to research the charges you face, including searching for information that might help you fight to reduce the charges to a less-serious ­offense through a plea bargain. It also gives you time to find and consult a lawyer, if you decide one is necessary

Before assuming the ticket can’t be beaten and resigning yourself to writing out that check, we encourage you to take a hard look at the facts to see if you have a reasonable chance of success. You may be surprised at the variety of legal grounds available for defeating your ticket. For example, in about one-third of the states—including California, Colorado, Texas, and Massachusetts—many posted speed limits are not “absolute.” This means if you were driving slightly above the posted speed limit but can convince a judge you were driving safely, you may be found not guilty. And to take another common example, where a ticket is given for an “unsafe lane change” it may be possible to show that you changed lanes with reasonable safety. That’s because it involves a quick judgment call on the part of the cop to cite you—a decision you may be able to successfully challenge if the lane change did not result in an accident.

Learn the Law

For More Information: How to Research Traffic Laws

To test the legality of the ticket you received, you must learn how to research the law and court procedure. Because of the Internet, researching the law is fairly easy. Once you locate the law you are accused of violating, you should closely examine its words and phrases because sometimes, the officer did not fully understand all of the technical aspects of the law, or worse, the officer has taken inappropriate liberties in interpreting the law.

If you are uneasy searching for legal technicalities to keep your record clear, then follow your conscience, pay your ticket, and accept the consequences. But keep in mind that exploiting legal technicalities is a common, legitimate practice for avoiding the consequences of a traffic ticket.

How to Decide Whether to Fight or Fold

Here are some questions to determine whether going to court makes sense:

  • Was the officer’s view of what occurred ­obstructed by other moving vehicles or ­stationary objects like trees, fences, or ­buildings? If so, this allows you to argue that the ­officer could not have clearly seen the ­alleged offense and gives you an opening to sell your ­version of events to the judge.
  • Did the officer stop the right car? It is quite possible in heavy traffic for an officer to see a violation committed by one white minivan (a 1995 Plymouth Voyager, for example) and to stop ­another (an almost identical white 1994 Dodge Caravan) farther down the road. Your ability to claim this happened (“the officer got the wrong driver, Your Honor”) obviously goes way up if you can show that because of a curve in the road, construction project, or just heavy traffic, the ­officer lost sight of the offending vehicle ­between the violation and pulling you over.
  • Were you charged with speeding when you were driving safely, even though you were driving over the speed limit? In about 20 states, the law says it’s legal to drive slightly over the posted speed limit as long as you can prove conditions made it safe to do so.  
  • Was there an actual, provable error in the officer’s approach or methodology? In citing you for speeding, did the ­officer correctly pace your vehicle or properly use VASCAR, radar, or laser to establish your speed
  • Do any other legal defenses exist to the law you’re charged with ­violating? For ­example, if you were charged with driving too slowly in the left lane of a multilane highway, it is a legal defense (provided for in most state’s laws) that you were planning to turn left.

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