Preparing Your Testimony for Traffic Court
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Defendants who know what to say and when to say it are far more likely to win than are defendants who stand up and hope to come up with a convincing story. In short, if you've come this far, you want to be well prepared. One big key to doing this is to carefully practice your presentation.
Why You Should Always Testify
Although you're not required to testify, it's almost always a good idea. Judges won't admit it, but they generally assume that a defendant who tries to claim that the prosecutor hasn't proven his or her case—while at the same time asserting the Fifth Amendment right to silence—must be guilty. You'll almost always do better by explaining your version of what happened as clearly, honestly, and forcefully as you can than by declining to testify.
How to practice your testimony. After you have practiced making your presentation enough times that you are getting pretty good, have a tough-minded friend or family member play the part of the judge. Ask that person to try to poke holes in your case by occasionally interrupting your presentation with questions (many judges do this). Do this several times until you feel comfortable answering questions about your version of what happened and the evidence you present to back it up. When you are done, ask your skeptical friend for a verdict. If your friend convicts you, the judge is likely to do so. Keep practicing until you convince your volunteer judge that you are innocent.
One good approach to presenting traffic court testimony is to outline the key points you want to make on an index card well in advance of your court date (leave space between entries for later additions). Be sure your testimony establishes an adequate defense to the violation (for example, it clearly demonstrates you didn't commit at least one key element of the violation). Use your notes as you practice making your presentation. (It's fine to glance at your outline, but it is a mistake to simply read it.) Then in court, after you cross-examine the officer and learn new facts, quickly add to or edit your outline This way, when it's finally your turn to testify, you should be prepared to tell a smooth and well-thought-out story.
For those who have never previously appeared in traffic court, it is a great idea to drop by and watch a few cases. Sure, this takes a couple of hours, but you are almost sure to learn more than enough to make this a wise use of the time. There is not enough space to provide sample testimony for every possible violation, but the following examples provide a road map to preparing your testimony, no matter what charge you face.
Exceeding Maximum Speed Limits
In states with an "absolute" speed limit, you should focus your testimony preparation on arguing that you were not speeding at all. If you simply say you were going 38 mph and the officer testifies it was really 48 mph, the judge will almost always choose to believe the cop's version. However, there are some good defenses you can mount that could even the odds a little. In preparing your testimony, consider if any of the following approaches fit your case:
- The officer didn't keep a constant distance between our vehicles when he "paced" me. I could see him in my rearview mirror bearing down on me fast. It took him just a few seconds to close from about half a mile back to being right behind me, which is when he activated his lights. In fact, after glancing at my speedometer and seeing that I was going at the speed limit, I was convinced the officer was speeding to an emergency farther down the road. When I realized he was after me, I was genuinely surprised.
- There was other traffic in my direction in front (or back) of me. The officer's wide radar beam could have hit the other traffic at the distance he was from me. Some of this other traffic was going faster.
- The road wasn't straight. Visibility was poor due to curves and hills. He could not have seen me for the time necessary to determine if I was speeding, which I was not.
- There were other vehicles similar to mine on the road at the time. One, the same make and color as mine, passed me. After the officer rounded the curve, he pulled me over by mistake.
Here is an example of testimony in an "absolute" speeding case:
When the officer stopped me for speeding, it was 5:15 p.m. I had just left work to go home. I wasn't in a hurry. I drive Highway 123 home every day, and I know the speed limit's 55 mph. Just before Officer Kwota pulled me over, I had slowed going around a curve because I needed to move from the left to right lane to prepare to turn right on Market Street. I had to pause for a moment because another red 1995 Chevy Blazer, almost identical to mine, passed me in the right lane at a high rate of speed and exited at Market Street. By this time, I had slowed to about 35 mph because I was still trying to move over to the right. At this point, I saw Officer Kwota's car come around the curve in the right lane. I was going to wait to allow him to proceed past me before getting in the right lane, but, to my surprise, he got into the left lane behind me and turned on his emergency lights. After I pulled over, the officer asked me if I knew why he had stopped me, and I said, "No, I think you stopped the wrong car.'" I told him that a similar-looking car had sped past me just after coming around a curve. He then asked me if I knew how fast I was going, and, not knowing where and when he was referring to, I said, "somewhere between 35 and 50 mph."
Notice how the testimony in these sections is specific and detailed. The more detail and specifics, the more convincing your testimony—a lot more convincing than simply saying, "I wasn't speeding, man. I was doing 50. I was cool."
Exceeding "Presumed" Speed Limits
When you're charged with violating a "presumed" speed, you have a much better shot at winning. (See Fight Your Speeding Ticket: What is the Law?.) Here you should focus your testimony preparation on arguing that you were not speeding, but, even if you were, it was only a few miles over the limit in a situation where this was safe. But always start by understanding that unless it was obvious you were over the limit, your best approach is to admit nothing and make the prosecution prove it. (Assuming it's true, you can simply testify that you were going at or below the limit.)
If you really were going slightly over the limit, you should consider making as many of the following points as fit your situation:
"Even if I was going slightly faster than 30 mph, it was safe to do so because:
- "There was very little vehicle or pedestrian traffic on the road." This is a particularly good argument if you can truthfully tell the judge you were ticketed at 6:00 a.m. or some other time when traffic is known to be light.
- "There was little or no other traffic in my lane, in my direction (or in both directions) for at least a half mile."
- "There was no cross traffic or uncontrolled intersections."
- "There were several lanes in each direction, and there was no one else even in my lane."
- "Even if I did exceed the speed limit, it was by less than 5 mph."
- "The road in question has an artificially low speed limit." Here, a picture of a wide, straight two-lane road with no traffic but a 25-mph limit might be convincing.
- "The weather was clear (no rain, fog, hail, etc.)."
- "The road was dry."
- "The road was well lighted by regularly spaced street lamps."
- "There were no sharp curves, hills, dips, or other such ‘natural' road defect requiring a slower speed."
Here is one example of testimony against charges of speeding with a "presumed" speeding violation:
I'm sure I didn't exceed the speed limit, but even if I did, it must have been by a small amount. Certainly by the time I saw Officer Ticketem and checked my speedometer, I was going right at the 35 mph limit. But even assuming I was going a little faster a few minutes before, it was very safe to do so. Please let me explain. I was in the left of two lanes in my direction, there was no traffic ahead in my direction—except for one vehicle that suddenly passed me on the right. The road is a four-lane divided highway, two lanes in each direction, and it was straight, and slightly downhill in my direction, so that I could see ahead for about a half-mile. The next intersection, with Market Street, was about a quarter of a mile ahead, I could see the green light, and there was no cross traffic waiting at the intersection. There were no pedestrians either. It was 6:45 p.m. in July, and most people were home eating dinner. It was still daylight, the weather was clear, and the road was dry. In fact, it was the kind of situation where even going 45 or 50 mph would have been safe, even though I wasn't going nearly that fast.
Running a Stoplight
When you're accused of running a red light, the issue is usually whether your vehicle entered the intersection after the light changed from yellow to red. To be guilty, the front bumper of your vehicle must have passed into the cross street after the light changed. If either of the following is true in your case, you should assert the defense:
- "I was driving at (or below) the speed limit."
- "I was only several car lengths from the intersection when the green light turned yellow."
Both of these defenses are based on the idea that the yellow light must last long enough for a car traveling at the speed limit to make it through the intersection before the light turns red. If you testify you were a few car-lengths from the signal when the light turned yellow, you are, in effect, saying that you must have entered the intersection when the light was yellow, since you were so close.
- "I looked up at the light and noted that it hadn't yet changed to red as my car entered the intersection." (A diagram might be very useful.)
- "I didn't think I could safely stop the car because I feared being rear-ended by someone tailgating me."
- "I proceeded through the yellow light cautiously."
Here is one example of testimony against charges of running a stoplight:
I was driving at the speed limit, 35 mph, on Warren Street. I know this because I looked down at my speedometer just as I began slowing to prepare to turn at the intersection with Maple Street. The green light changed to yellow as I was only about two car lengths in front of the entrance to the intersection. So I continued, and the light was still yellow as my car crossed over the crosswalk and entered the intersection. As is my habit, I glanced up at the traffic signal overhead—which continued to stay yellow until it passed out of sight over the top of my windshield. At all times the cross traffic heading in both directions on Maple Street was stopped, so my turn did not create a dangerous situation.
Be as specific as possible. Go back to the scene and attempt to determine the exact distance you were from the light when it changed from green to yellow (for example, maybe the car in front of you had just turned into a gas station), the duration of the yellow light, and your car's speed. With the help of a diagram, based on the facts you present, you could argue that you only could have entered the intersection while the light was still yellow. If you show you were 100 feet away from the intersection at a gas station entrance—going 35 mph when the light turned from green to yellow—you can figure out how many feet per second you were traveling and prove you were well into the intersection before the light turned yellow.