What Happens in Traffic Court: Trial By Judge

Related Ads

Need Professional Help? Talk to a Lawyer

Enter Your Zip Code to Connect with a Lawyer Serving Your Area

searchbox small

This section takes you step by step through a traffic court trial, with information on your options at the various stages of the proceedings. For simplicity's sake, throughout this section the term "prosecutor" and "the prosecution" will be used to refer to whomever is doing the prosecuting against you, whether it is the police officer, an assistant district attorney, or other prosecuting attorney.

Clerk Calls the Case

Your trial begins when the clerk calls your case, usually by saying, "State [or "People"] vs. [your name]." Assuming you and your witnesses have already been sworn in, you should now come to the front of the courtroom and sit at one of two tables (usually the one farthest away from the jury box). Whether you stand or sit when making your presentation (and often where you do so) depends largely on the courtroom's architecture and the preference of the judge. Most courtrooms have a traditional witness box next to the judge's bench where you and any witnesses—including the officer—may be asked to testify. However, many traffic court judges prefer that you and your witnesses tell your story from behind your table, while the officer does the same from the adjacent table. To ask questions during cross-examination, you simply turn slightly to face each other (but do not leave your table).

To start the proceeding, the clerk (or the judge) may then recite the bare facts of the case. The clerk may say something like, "Mr. Loo, you are charged with a violation of Section 1180 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law of the State of New York, by driving 48 mph in a 35-mph zone on the 400 block of Main Street in Sun City."

Last-Minute Motions

Before the prosecution begins its case, you may want to make one or more requests of the judge. These are called "motions" and, depending on the facts of your case, might include:

  • requesting a continuance if you need more time
  • requesting dismissal of the charges for failure of the prosecution to disclose the officer's notes as per your written request
  • requesting the judge to order the prosecution to provide you a copy of the officer's notes so you can better prepare for trial, or
  • requesting dismissal, if the prosecution has taken too long to bring the case to trial.

To make a motion, stand up as soon as the judge stops speaking and say, "Your Honor, I would like to make the following motion." Then, depending on the motion, you continue along these lines: "I move to dismiss this case based on the fact that the prosecution has completely ignored my written request to discover the officer's notes. I have here a copy of that request, made on January 15, 20xx."

Below we cover other situations where you may wish to make a motion.

If Officer Fails to Show Up (Lack of Prosecution)

One of the cornerstones of the American legal system is that you have the right to confront your accusers and cross-examine them when you are charged with a criminal offense, even if it is minor. If the officer fails to show, you should point out to the judge that this right has been denied and your case should be dismissed. (Lawyers call this a "dismissal for lack of prosecution.") Make sure the judge knows how inconvenienced you have been by the officer's failure to show up.

Here is an example of what you can say (adjusting the facts to fit your circumstances, of course):

Your Honor, I move that this case be dismissed. I am ready to proceed to trial. I've subpoenaed two witnesses, both of whom are present. We have each taken the morning off from work, at substantial expense, to defend against this. I received no advance notice from anyone that the case would not proceed. Certainly if I failed to show up and the officer was present, I wouldn't be entitled to a last-minute postponement. So I respectfully ask that the court dismiss this case for lack of prosecution and in the interest of justice.

Requests to dismiss under these circumstances are often granted. The judge will normally deny your request only if the officer has communicated to the court some really good reason for the failure to show up and for not notifying you in advance. Acceptable excuses might include law enforcement or medical emergencies. Unacceptable excuses include planned events like vacations and previously scheduled training or medical leave—reasons for which you could have been notified well in advance.

Excluding Multiple Witnesses

Occasionally the prosecution will have more than one witness. This is usually true in aircraft-patrol situations, because one officer must testify to clocking your vehicle from the air, the other to pulling you over and identifying you on the ground. This can also occur when two police officers were present at the time you were cited. In addition, if you were involved in an accident, other drivers or bystanders—in addition to the officer—may be asked to testify against you.

You never want to allow two or more prosecution witnesses to be in the courtroom at the same time during the trial, because doing so allows them an easy opportunity to coordinate their stories and present the same version of the facts. By contrast, if each officer or other prosecution witness testifies outside the presence of the others, you have the opportunity to exploit likely inconsistencies in their individual versions of events. To do this, say, "Your Honor, I request that multiple witnesses be excluded from the courtroom." Such a request is not impolite or hostile and will be routinely granted. (If your motion is granted, it will also mean any witnesses you have must also wait outside.)

Requesting a Continuance

If you feel a delay (continuance) would work in your favor (see Postponing Your Court Date: The Continuance on how a continuance can help you), you have a final opportunity to ask for it just before trial actually starts. For example, a continuance might be needed if you've subpoenaed an essential witness who has not shown up. If you have subpoenaed a witness to produce certain documents—called a subpoena "duces tecum"—and the documents have not arrived, you may also want to ask for a delay.

But don't ask for a continuance until you see if the ticketing officer has arrived. Obviously, if the officer is not present, you'll want to ask for a dismissal.

Opening Statements

Before testimony is presented, both the prosecution and the defense have the right to make an opening statement briefly reviewing the violation and saying how they intend to prove each element of the case. It's important to realize that in doing this, neither you nor the prosecutor needs to prove anything. The point is to simply lay the groundwork for the officer (or maybe other witnesses as well) to testify later.

The Prosecution's Statement

Some prosecutors make an opening statement, but most are sensitive to the judge's desire for a quick trial and waive the opening statement, because their facts will come out during the testimony of the ticketing officer. When just the police officer shows up and there is no prosecutor, it's even rarer for an opening statement to be made. That's because most officers realize their role is to present evidence, not to act as an advocate for a guilty verdict or suggest to the judge how to view the testimony.

If a prosecutor chooses to make an opening statement, it may sound like this:

Your Honor, the People (or State) will show, through the testimony of Officer Tim Ticketem of the Dayton Police Department, that the defendant, Sam Safespeed, was driving a red 1997 Corvette on Walnut Street, where posted speed limit signs indicate the speed limit to be 35 miles per hour. It will also show that Officer Ticketem, relying on his radar speed detection device, determined Mr. Safespeed drove in excess of 50 miles per hour, and he visually confirmed for over half a mile that Mr. Safespeed was weaving in and out of traffic.

Your Opening Statement

You also have the legal right to give an opening statement before any prosecution testimony or to "reserve" the right to make it until just before your defense begins. In many courts, the judge will assume you don't want to make an opening statement and simply ask the prosecutor or police officer to begin their presentation. At this point you will normally want to say, "Your Honor, I would like to reserve the right to make a very brief opening statement until just before I testify."

Why reserve your opening statement? Because by waiting you have the opportunity to tailor your remarks to what you learn in the officer's testimony. Also, by not giving your statement at the beginning, you avoid revealing your strategy in advance.

You get an opening statement even if the prosecution waives it. Even when a prosecuting attorney does not make an opening statement or isn't even present, you still have the right to present—or reserve—an opening statement. But again, in some courtrooms you'll need to make sure the judge knows you wish to do so by politely speaking up.

The Prosecution's Testimony

After opening statements, the officer who cited you will explain why you are guilty of the violation you were ticketed for. In most traffic trials, the officer will testify by standing behind the counsel table (see the courtroom diagram at the beginning of this chapter). But in courts that prefer a more formal approach, the officer will testify from the witness stand.

If no prosecutor is present, the officer will recite what occurred and why the officer believes these facts justified issuing you a ticket. You have the right to interrupt the officer's presentation, but only if you identify a legitimate legal reason to "object" to a particular aspect of the officer's testimony. Of course, you should never interrupt to say, "He's lying! That's not true!" or something similar. Instead, you must politely say "Objection, Your Honor," and then briefly explain the legal basis for your objection.

Don't object frivolously. In a trial before a judge, without a jury, there is often little to be gained by making lots of objections. The judge almost surely knows the rules of evidence far better than you do and is likely to discount any testimony or documents the officer presents that are way out of bounds.

Most objections to testimony are made on one of the following four grounds.

The Witness Has Not Provided Enough Detail to Show Why He or She Has Personal Knowledge of His or Her Testimony

This is called failing to provide a "foundation" or "legal basis" for the testimony. For example, if a police officer refers to a diagram, the officer must first say how he or she knows the diagram is an accurate reflection of the place you were stopped and ticketed. Usually this is done when the officer testifies that he or she drew the diagram after writing the ticket while still looking at the scene.

If the officer fails to do this, you could say, "Objection, Your Honor. The officer has not provided a proper foundation for using the diagram. He apparently has no independent recollection of the incident and should not be allowed to refresh his memory with the diagram which may not even be of the proper area."

This objection can be useful if you believe the officer really isn't prepared to lay the proper foundation, in which case the diagram could not be used against you. But, if you are pretty sure the officer will simply explain facts and convince the judge the diagram accurately reflects the area where the ticket was given, it's a mistake to waste the judge's time with what the judge will likely consider to be a frivolous objection.

Object to the officer's use of notes. Watch the officer carefully to see if the officer is using notes while giving testimony. As discussed in What Happens in Traffic Ticket Trial by Judge?, officers commonly testify by using notes scribbled on the back of their copy of the ticket. If the officer refreshes his or her memory in this way, you have a right to object on the basis the officer hasn't "laid the foundation" necessary to use the notes. This may discombobulate the officer, who may then have to admit that he or she can't remember much without the notes. On cross-examination, you may then want to press this point home by asking the officer about details of what happened. Assuming the officer can't remember, you'll have a better shot at testifying to facts that raise a reasonable doubt as to whether you are really guilty. And then in your final argument, tell the judge that, based on the officer's poor recollection and your testimony, there is a reasonable doubt as to your guilt. (See What Happens in Traffic Ticket Trial by Judge? on when to object to testimony.)

The Officer Presents Evidence You Requested Well Before Trial But Never Received

Here you can say: "Objection, Your Honor. The officer is referring to his notes, a copy of which I requested by way of discovery several weeks ago; my written request for those notes—which I'd like to show the court is right here—was never responded to. I ask that this evidence be excluded and the officer's testimony be disallowed."

Then, you hand a copy of your written discovery request (see Getting Police Evidence to Fight Tickets) to the clerk for the judge to see. If your objection is approved—or "sustained"—by the judge, you should ask for a continuance to study the notes. If granted, this means the officer must come back to court a second day (something that may be difficult to do). At worst, the judge should give you the opportunity to study the notes right then—which may still be very helpful when you cross-examine the officer. For example, if they are cursory or sloppy (but the officer has already claimed to need to refer to them to refresh his or her recollection), you may be able to get the cop to admit he or she can't recall other details not mentioned in the notes.

The Officer Says Something That 
Is Clearly Outside His or Her Knowledge

If the cop testifies to what someone else saw or heard—called "hearsay"—you'll definitely want to object. This includes anything the officer testifies to that did not come from direct observation. You can say, "Objection, Your Honor. The officer's testimony as to how fast the officer in the aircraft said my vehicle was going is hearsay."

The point here is to begin to discredit any information the officer doesn't know firsthand, so that later you can argue that there is reasonable doubt as to your guilt. For example, if the officer says that another driver (perhaps after an accident) said you were going 70 mph, you'll want to object. Later you'll point out that this "hearsay" evidence does not prove that you were speeding.

The Testimony of an Officer Assumes Facts Not in Evidence

When an officer testifies that "the defendant's vehicle" exceeded the speed limit, but hasn't testified how he or she knew it was your vehicle, that's assuming a fact—that you drove that vehicle—which hasn't been established yet. It is important to object here, particularly if you later plan to claim the officer may have stopped the wrong car. You can say, "Objection, Your Honor. The officer has so far testified only that she observed a vehicle, not that she identified me as having driven it, and her reference to ‘the defendant's vehicle' therefore assumes facts not in evidence."

If your objection is approved ("sustained"), the officer will have to go back to square one and explain exactly how he or she determined that you were the driver of the vehicle. The officer will have to describe the vehicle, pulling it over, and identifying you through your driver's license. Especially if the officer might have had trouble doing this (your car was out of sight briefly), this objection may throw the officer off balance (never a bad thing, because many officers are almost insultingly cocky in court) and remind the officer that he or she is not out on the street, where cops run the show. If the judge denies ("overrules") your objection, just let the officer continue testifying.

Your Cross-Examination

In Preparing for Cross-Examination in Traffic Court, we provide information on how to prepare for cross-examination.

After the officer is finished, you get to cross-examine him or her. (If you have not read In Preparing for Cross-Examination in Traffic Court on preparing your cross-examination, do so now.) Remember to be polite and non-argumentative. Ask simple questions that require short and direct answers. If the officer gives an unexpected answer, don't argue. If you think the officer is not being completely truthful or covering up important facts, ask a more detailed question. Otherwise, just go on.

Again, it's best not to ask vague questions that give the officer a chance to tell more of his or her story. If, despite your pointed questions, the officer tries to do that anyway, politely interrupt with "Thank you" or "I think you've answered my question." If all else fails, say to the judge, "Objection, Your Honor. The latter part of the officer's answer is nonresponsive, and I ask that it be stricken."

Redirect Examination

A prosecuting attorney handling the case has the chance to ask the officer more questions after you finish your cross-examination. This is called "redirect examination," and the questions asked are supposed to relate only to issues you brought up during your cross-examination.

If the prosecutor asks more questions, you too get another chance to ask more questions of the officer. Called "re-cross-examination," in it you must limit your questions to issues brought out by the prosecutor on redirect examination. If you start asking questions you have asked earlier—or ask about new issues—the prosecutor will almost surely object, and the judge will probably ask you to sit down.

Reserved Opening Statements

If you reserved your opening statement at the beginning of the trial, you'll want to make it now, just before you give your testimony. Why make an opening statement and then immediately set about testifying to the same facts? Because it allows you to get the judge's attention focused on what you intend to prove.

What if the judge asks you to waive your opening statement? Many judges will attempt to hurry you along by suggesting that you start your testimony by explaining what happened from your point of view and go on from there. Assuming you have prepared carefully, agreeing to do this may be a good idea. Not only does it keep the judge happy, but artfully done, you can make all the same points anyway.

If you do decide to make an opening statement, it should be short and to the point. Here the idea is to outline what you intend to prove, not to testify to the detailed facts that you claim back up these points (you do this next when you testify). Your opening statement should go more or less like this:

Your Honor, I will show facts that I believe will demonstrate that I am not guilty. Specifically, I will rely on my own testimony, and that of my passenger, that we both ascertained my speed to be approximately 35 miles per hour on Main Street at the time I was ticketed. I did this by occasionally glancing at my speedometer as I was driving, and my witness did it by checking my speed when she saw the reflection of the officer's colored lights on the windshield. I will also show my speedometer was accurate at that speed reading. Finally, I will testify to the fact that just before Officer Ticketem pulled up quickly behind me and used a radar gun, I saw a large truck pass in the "fast" lane to my left.

Your Testimony

In most traffic court trials, you will simply stand up at the counsel table, look at the judge, and present your view of what happened. But in a few courts, you'll be asked to take the witness stand. Either way, you'll want to have practiced your presentation ahead of time. It's okay to glance briefly at notes, but don't read directly from them. Here is an abbreviated version of Sam Safespeed's testimony.

I was driving down Main Street at 35 mph, in the right-hand lane of two lanes in my direction. When I passed the speed limit sign just past Elm Street, I looked at my speedometer and it read between 32 and 35 mph. Because I was so surprised I was ticketed, later that same day I took my car to Spartan Speedo Shop and had my speedometer checked. I have proof of that certification, which says my speedometer was accurate, in this document, which I'd like to have marked and introduced as Defendant's Exhibit #1.

When I was driving, I also glanced in my rearview mirror from time to time. Just before the officer pulled me over, I looked and saw a vehicle, about a quarter mile behind, rapidly gaining on me, just as a large truck went by pretty fast in the left lane. I didn't recognize the car gaining rapidly on me from behind as a police vehicle until the officer activated his lights—which he did when he was fairly close to my rear bumper. At that point, I said to my passenger, "Gee, Pam, there's an officer flashing his lights, maybe he's after that trucker, so I better pull over to let him pass." I pulled over, but he stayed behind me.

At this point in the trial, you would want to refer to any diagrams, photos, or other evidence supporting your case. (See Gathering the Evidence For Traffic Court AND Preparing Diagrams and Photos for Traffic Court on preparing your case for trial.) Once you have told your story and submitted all the evidence you have, the prosecutor (if present) may cross-examine you. (See Preparing for Cross-Examination in Traffic Court.) The prosecutor may ask a few questions or simply waive the right to cross-examine. The judge may also ask you some questions. But if the testifying police officer tries to question you, you should politely but promptly object on the ground that the officer is only a witness and not licensed to practice law. Say something like this: "Objection, Your Honor. Officer Ticketem is not a lawyer, and therefore I do not believe it's proper for him to cross-examine me." If your objection is overruled, you must answer the officer's questions.

All of your responses should be given courteously, truthfully, and as briefly as possible. Contrary to old Perry Mason episodes, you are not limited to only a "yes" or "no" answer. After all, what if the prosecutor asks you whether you knew you were speeding, in which case both "yes" and "no" are terrible answers. Far better—as is your right—to say, "I know I wasn't speeding because I had just looked at my speedometer."

Witness Testimony

Next will be your chance to present the testimony of any eyewitnesses. Depending on local court rules and customs, your witnesses will be expected to either testify in the same narrative fashion in which you testified, or you'll be expected to ask questions designed to allow the witness to explain what happened.

Here is what Pam Passenger, a passenger in Sam Safespeed's car, might say if allowed to simply explain what happened:

Well, Your Honor, on March 15th at about 4:30 p.m., I was seated in the front passenger seat of Sam Safespeed's car. I recall just before Sam was pulled over by the officer that we were in the right or "slow" traffic lane. Other cars were passing us on the left, including a large truck. Suddenly, I saw colored lights reflected on Sam's windshield and immediately glanced at the speedometer, and saw that we were going 35 mph. I am quite sure I did this before Sam had a chance to slow down.

It pays to practice with your witness. It is both legal and sensible to ask your witness to practice giving testimony. (If you don't know whether your court uses the narrative or question-and-answer style, practice both.) This will allow you to discuss and clear up any discrepancies in how you remember events.

The prosecutor will also have a chance to cross-examine your witnesses when each one is finished testifying.

Closing Statements

The final stage of your traffic court case is the closing arguments or statements. Each side has a chance to present its argument after both have presented their testimony and evidence and have been allowed to cross-examine any witnesses. This is the time when you must sum up the best arguments you have to be found not guilty. In most states, your goal is to make it clear that there is a reasonable doubt as to whether you committed the actual offense. (In a few states, you must prove your innocence.) If you have admitted the violation, you must explain that you had a very good legal reason for technically violating the law.

How to Ask Questions of Your Own Witness

It's difficult for an inexperienced person to ask just the right questions. If you feel intimidated by this process, tell the judge, "Your Honor, I haven't attended law school and I'm unfamiliar with technical rules. May I just ask Ms. Passenger to simply tell you what she saw?"

If you choose—or are required—to have your witnesses respond to questions, particularly if a prosecuting attorney is opposing you, here are some hints that should make things go easier:

  • Be sure to ask nonleading questions, which normally begin with "what," "who," "where," "when," or "how." Leading questions—which you may not use when questioning your own witness (but you may use when conducting cross-examination)—are questions that suggest or provide the answer you are seeking. For example, it is fine to ask, "What color was the car?" It is not acceptable to ask, "Was the car red?" or "The car was red, wasn't it?"
  • Avoid irrelevant details. For example, if you are accused of running a red light, the judge will not care that you were on your way to help your Mom take your dog, Bonzo, to the vet to be cured of a severe flea infestation.
  • Don't ask questions that assume facts that the witness hasn't testified to. This is another way of saying that your questions should help the witness explain what
  • happened in chronological order. For example, don't ask, "Did you see a truck pass my car?" before the witness says anything about a truck being present. Instead, you could first ask, "Did you see any other vehicles traveling in my direction?" If the witness says, "Yes, I saw a big truck," then it's time to ask what the truck was doing.
  • Don't ask your witness to recount something said by someone else. That is hearsay and cannot be used at a trial. But there is one big exception: A witness can testify to what the ticketing officer said to you and what you said to the officer, if the officer testified earlier about your conversation together.
  • Make a list of the few key facts to which your witness will testify. Design a question calculated to get at each fact. Arrange them in chronological order. By asking your questions in chronological order, your goal is to build a logical foundation for later ones, using the expected answers from earlier questions. For example, you might start with, "Where were you on March 15th at 2:30 p.m.?" Assuming the witness says "in your car," it makes sense to follow up with, "Do you recall Officer Ticketem pulling me over?" Only then is it time to ask, "What did you observe before the officer pulled me over?"
How to Ask Questions of Your Own Witness (continued)

For example:

Q: "On March 5th at 5:15 p.m., what were you doing?

A: "I was traveling with you, in your car."

A: "Traffic in our direction was passing on our left, and I think there was traffic in the other direction."

Q: "At that time, were you able to see which lane I was in?"

A: "Yes."

Q: "Do you recall seeing anything unusual?"

A: "Yes, I suddenly saw colored lights reflected on your windshield."

Q: "Which lane was that?"

A: "The right, or slow, lane."

Q: "What, if anything, did you do then?"

A: "I looked over at your speedometer to see what it said."

Q: "Did you observe any other vehicles on the road?"

A: "Yes"

Q: "Did you look at my speedometer before or after I started slowing down to pull over?"

A: "I looked so quickly, I'm sure it was before."

Q: "Where were they located?" (At this point, the witness should refer to the other cars and explain where they were and in which direction they were going.)

Q: "How fast was I going?"

A: "35 mph."

The Prosecution's Statement

If there is no prosecutor present, the case normally concludes after the officer's testimony and your cross-examination, unless you ask to make a final statement. In trials with a prosecuting attorney, he or she is allowed to summarize his or her case first. The prosecutor will explain how the officer's testimony (and maybe some cross-examination testimony given by you or your witnesses) "proves beyond a reasonable doubt" each element of the offense and disproves any defenses you've raised. During the prosecutor's closing argument, remain calm and poker faced. It is a mistake to express outrage, indignation, derision, or any other emotion. Remember, this is just another day in the office for the judge, who won't appreciate histrionics. But do listen carefully to the prosecution's arguments so that you can respond to them in your own closing argument, which comes next.

EXAMPLE: Priscilla Prosecutor sums up the evidence, saying, "Your Honor, Officer Ticketem, an officer with 20 years of traffic enforcement experience, testified as follows. He calibrated his radar unit with a tuning fork at the beginning of his shift. While parked northbound on Main Street, he observed a blue Plymouth Voyager van traveling about 45 mph in a 35-mph zone. Easy-to-read speed limit signs are posted every quarter of a mile in that area. He also testified that he aimed his radar gun within seconds after the vehicle had passed him, that he heard a strong Doppler tone, and that his radar unit read a speed of 49 mph. The officer testified he never lost sight of the vehicle, pulled it over, and ticketed Sam Safespeed. The evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant exceeded the posted speed limit by 10 mph."

If a police officer tries to give a closing statement, you can object on the ground that this involves the practice of law. Do this by saying something like, "Objection, Your Honor. The officer is a witness, not a lawyer or advocate. He's here to present evidence only, not to practice law by arguing which evidence is more believable, or how this Court should apply the law to the facts."

Do not refer to new evidence or testimony in a closing statement. If the prosecutor or officer refers to any key fact not already brought out in court testimony, promptly object by saying, "Objection, Your Honor. No evidence was presented on that point."

Your Closing Statement

When you represent yourself in court, you have two roles—witness and advocate. In your role as witness, you have already testified to what you claim happened. Now, as your own attorney, you have a chance to review and summarize the main points you made during the trial and explain to the judge why you should be found not guilty. Making a closing argument is different than testifying. Your best approach is to act as if you were a third party, and summarize and comment on the evidence. The point, of course, is to convince the judge that there is at least a reasonable doubt as to your guilt.

Some judges—especially where no prosecutor represents the other side—will try to wrap up the case with no closing argument. Unless you are sure your case is hopeless—or the judge has all but said you have won—you'll want to politely request your right to make a final argument. With some judges, you'll need to insist by saying something like this: "Your Honor, I believe it's my right to make a brief final statement. I'll be well organized and quick, but I do want to briefly explain why the evidence shows I'm not guilty."

To make an influential impression in final argument, you need to explain your position, convincingly and politely, usually in fewer than 15 sentences. Don't read a statement. Do outline your speech ahead of time and practice giving it several times in the days before your court date. If you have already obtained the officer's notes, study them carefully, looking for deficiencies in the officer's evidence or inconsistencies in the the officer's conclusions. (See Getting Police Evidence to Fight Tickets on how to get the officer's notes.) You'll probably need to modify it a bit at the last minute to take into account what the officer says at trial, but this should be easy enough as long as you have a clear plan as to how to make your major points. Conclude with something like: "And for these reasons, Your Honor, there is a reasonable doubt as to whether I committed the offense, and I therefore ask that you find me not guilty."

Three closing argument no-nos:

  • Don't bring up new facts you or other witnesses haven't already testified to. You are not allowed to refer to anything that was not brought up during the trial.
  • Don't make it personal. Never insult the ticketing officer by suggesting the officer is lying or personally biased against you. But you may point out weaknesses in the officer's testimony —especially his or her failure to give convincing or thorough answers to your cross-examination questions.
  • Don't challenge the authority of the judicial system to charge you with a traffic offense or say you will ignore the court's ruling if you are found guilty.

Your closing statement—given after the prosecution makes its closing statement—should emphasize that at least one of the elements of the offense hasn't been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Or you can argue that you have presented some other legally sufficient defense. 

To begin your closing argument, say to the judge: "Your Honor, I would like to summarize how the evidence shows I'm not guilty." Then explain how:

  1. The officer's testimony failed to prove one or more of the necessary elements of the violation you are charged with, and/or
  2. Your own testimony (and that of any other witness) has shown that you did not violate one or more elements, despite the officer's contrary testimony, and/or
  3. Your testimony establishes a legally sufficient reason why you violated the statute, such as your legitimate mistake of fact or reaction to a dire emergency. 

EXAMPLE:

Sam Safespeed's Closing Argument

Your Honor, let me quickly summarize the evidence as part of telling you why I'm not guilty. First, Officer Ticketem never really established that I violated (the code section you are charged with violating) when he relied heavily on his notes and didn't really remember what happened. When I cross-examined him, he honestly admitted:

That he had not calibrated the radar unit with a tuning fork at the beginning and end of his shift, as is recommended in the radar unit's operating manual.

That he was over 180 feet away from my vehicle when he activated his radar unit.

By contrast, both Pam Passenger, my witness, and I testified that I was in the right lane, the ‘slow' lane, and that there was plenty of other traffic, in both directions, including a large truck quickly pulling ahead of me in the lane to my left. In addition, the officer testified that he took at least three seconds to aim the radar unit at my vehicle, meaning that my car was about 180 feet in front of his, and receding, when he activated it. He also conceded that at that distance the radar beam was at least 30 feet wide, which is the same width as two lanes. Finally, he also reluctantly conceded that his radar unit is more sensitive to a larger target, such as a large truck, and that it's quite possible to get a false reading in a situation like this.

Finally, Ms. Passenger and I testified that I was going about 35 mph based on looking at my speedometer, which I proved was accurate. So to sum up, I think that in this situation there really is a reasonable doubt as to whether Officer Ticketem correctly determined my vehicle's speed, and I therefore respectfully ask that you find me not guilty.

Prosecution's Rebuttal Statement

Because the prosecution has the burden of proving you're guilty, it gets two shots to argue its case. The second one is intended to allow a rebuttal to the things you covered in your argument. Often, the prosecutor will choose not to make a rebuttal statement. If only an officer is present, he or she almost never will.

The Verdict

After all the evidence and closing statements have been presented, the judge must either announce a verdict or take the case "under advisement" or "under submission." This means the judge wants to think about it.

If the judge takes the case under advisement, it means you will be notified of the decision by mail. But if you are considering appealing if you lose, it's wise to call or visit the court about once a week to find out if the verdict has been filed. That's because in most places your appeal to a higher court must be made between five and 30 days from the time the judge files the verdict with the court clerk, and some court clerks don't get their paperwork in the mail on time. This can leave you with very little, or no, time in which to appeal.

If the judge finds you not guilty, you don't have to pay any fine and are entitled to a refund of any bail you may have posted.

The Sentence

In most places, for routine violations, judges state the amount of your fine immediately after announcing a guilty verdict. If you mounted a decent defense—but have not convinced the judge of your innocence—the judge may reduce, or even suspend, the fine. In a few states, if you are found guilty and fined, the judge may listen to a plea (or read a letter) from you requesting that your fine be suspended or reduced based on your good driving record (or for some other convincing reason). Or, the judge may agree to your request for a payment schedule, if you cannot afford to pay the amount all at once. (Talk to the court clerk if you wish to ask for a fine reduction.)

Get Informed

Empower yourself with our plain-English information

Do It Yourself

Handle routine tasks with our products

Find a Lawyer

Connect with a local lawyer who meets your needs

The fastest, easiest way to find, choose, and connect to traffic tickets lawyers

LA-NOLO1:DRU.1.6.4.20141222.29342