By now you should have analyzed the law you are charged with violating and have a clear understanding of all the elements you are supposed to have transgressed. Before you consume energy, time, and money fighting your case, you'll first want to think about whether it makes sense to move in this direction.
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 (see Chapter 4).
A first step to doing this is to understand the category of offense you are charged with and the consequences you'll face if you fight and lose, or simply decide to pay up. Traffic offenses are classified somewhat differently in different states. Next, you'll learn how this classification system generally works.
"Civil" or "Administrative" Traffic Offenses (Some States)
There is an increasing trend among states to "decriminalize" ordinary traffic violations. These states call traffic violations "civil infractions," or similar terms. Although this may sound good, in some instances it can make it harder to fight a ticket. Typically, where tickets are treated as civil offenses, states make it easier to be convicted. Here's how:
- Some states with a civil system do not require proof of guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt"—you can be convicted if a judge decides that a preponderance (more than 50%) of the evidence tends to show you violated the traffic law.
- In some states with a civil traffic violation system, the ticketing officer is not required to show up at the hearing, greatly reducing your chances of casting doubt on his or her version of events. (Always insist that the officer appear, if you have that choice.)
- Your right to see the evidence against you in advance of the hearing (called "discovery") may be severely limited.
Even if you are charged with a civil traffic offense, you'll find much valuable information on preparing for trial in Chapters 9 and 10.
Different Standards of Proof
In states that have enacted a "civil" or "decriminalized" traffic violation scheme, the burden of proof necessary for a conviction is usually not as strict as in a regular criminal case. Most of these states apply the "preponderance" standard of proof, which is commonly interpreted to mean that more than 50% of the evidence weighs against you, or, it is more likely than not that you committed the offense. This is in contrast to the standard criminal standard of proof, "beyond a reasonable doubt," which places a much higher burden on the prosecutor.
To confuse matters further, there are a few states with civil traffic systems that use yet another standard of proof, called "clear and convincing." This means the state must prove it is "highly probable" (to quote Vermont's statute) that you committed the offense. Clear and convincing evidence is a harder standard for a prosecutor to meet than preponderance, but less difficult than beyond a reasonable doubt.
Traffic Offenses as Crimes (Most States)
In most states traffic violations are still considered criminal offenses. Typically, there are three levels of these offenses: 1) infractions, or "petty" or "summary" offenses, 2) misdemeanors, and 3) felonies. The rights you have to fight a ticket, and the way they are handled in court, depend on which level of offense your state assigns to traffic violations. The consequences will also vary.
"Petty" or "Summary" Offenses or "Infractions"
In the majority of states routine traffic violations are classified as petty or summary offenses or infractions. As these words connote, these are extremely minor criminal offenses. But fortunately, when it comes to mounting your defense, you still have the right to demand that the ticketing officer appear at trial and still may cross-examine the officer, and the prosecution must prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, in states that classify offenses this way, you do not have the right to trial by jury or the right to a court-appointed lawyer if you can't afford to hire one.
In most states a "misdemeanor" is an offense punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of no more than $1,000 or $2,000. First offense charges of reckless and drunk driving fall into this category in most states. (We do not cover these more serious offenses in this book.) Ordinary traffic tickets are also considered to be misdemeanors in close to half of the states. When you are charged with a misdemeanor, you have all the rights discussed under "infractions" or "petty" offenses discussed above, plus the right to a jury trial.
This is the most serious type of offense, usually including repeat offense drunk- driving and hit-and-run accidents causing injury or death. In some states a third or fourth drunk-driving conviction, even if it does not involve injury or death, is treated as a felony. In other states even the second DUI/DWI can be treated as a felony. Conviction of a felony can be punished by a sentence of more than a year in state prison and a substantial fine, although judges in many states have considerable discretion. We do not cover felonies in this book.
Charged with a felony? Get help fast. People charged with a felony need more help than this book can give. Normally you'll want to at least talk to a lawyer with lots of experience in fighting serious traffic cases. Once you are fully informed of your rights and your chances of prevailing in court, it will be time to decide whether to fight back or enter a guilty plea.
Negative Consequences of Getting a Ticket
In all states, only those convicted of the more serious traffic violations, such as drunk or reckless driving, face the possibility of going to jail. State laws do not allow a judge to impose a jail sentence for speeding or failure to stop at a signal. Even where laws do give a judge the discretionary power to jail a traffic offender (sometimes for repeat offenders), the judge will very rarely choose to exercise it. Even though ordinary violations won’t result in jail time, the other consequences of not contesting a ticket, or fighting and being found guilty, can be serious. As you doubtless know, you can face a stiff fine, a day in traffic school, significantly higher insurance premiums, and possibly even the suspension of your driver’s license.
A routine ticket for speeding, failure to yield, or failure to stop at a stop sign will normally cost you between $75 and $300, depending on your state law and sometimes your driving record. If the fine isn’t written right on the ticket, it’s easy to learn the amount by looking online or calling the traffic court. States normally have standard fines for particular violations, based on the type of offense. In speeding cases, the fine can be based on how much you exceeded the posted speed limit. Some states can also set the fine based, at least in part, on whether you have other recent violations.
Because it’s expensive for the state if you fight your ticket, courts place hurdles in the way of people who insist on a court hearing, while establishing “no muss, no fuss” options to pay your fine (often called “forfeiting bail”). But while paying up may be easy, it can have lasting negative consequences, because the violation will appear on your driving record, normally for about three years. The big exception to this rule is if you pay the fine in conjunction with going to traffic school. Completion of traffic school normally means the ticket will not appear on your record.
Depending on your state law and your insurance company policies, your auto insurance rates will normally not increase if you receive one ordinary moving violation over three to five years. But two or more moving violations—or a moving violation combined with an at-fault accident—during the same time period might result in an increase in your insurance bill. Unfortunately, because insurance companies follow different rules when it comes to raising the rates of policyholders who pay fines or are found guilty of a traffic violation, it’s not always easy to know from an insurance perspective whether it makes sense to fight a ticket.
Before you can make an informed choice as to whether to pay, go to school, or fight, it makes sense to find out whether having the ticket on your record will result in your insurance rates being upped. The most direct approach is to call your insurance company and ask. Beware, though, that this approach risks alerting your insurer that you have been ticketed (something you don’t want to do if you hope to successfully fight it or go to traffic school).
You won’t lose your license for one or usually even two tickets for a routine moving violation like speeding, running a stoplight or stop sign, or many other garden-variety traffic scrapes. That is unless you are under 18 years of age, where you could lose your driving privileges in some states.
If you are more than 18 years of age and have had at least three previous convictions for moving violations in the past three to five years, you could lose your license (parking violations don’t count). If you are charged with drunk, reckless, or hit-and-run driving, and have several previous convictions for moving violations, you can be pretty sure your right to continue to hold your license is in jeopardy. In most states suspensions are handled on a point system, with a license at risk of being pulled if a driver gets three or more tickets in a short period (see “How Point Systems Work,” below). Check exact rules with your state’s department of motor vehicles. Obviously, if you face losing your license, your incentive to fight a ticket goes way up no matter what your chances of winning.
No matter what type of point system is used, you are typically entitled to a hearing in front of a motor vehicle bureau hearing officer before your license can be revoked. At that hearing it is often a good idea to explain why at least some of the violations were the result of mistakes by the ticketing officer, but for some good reason you didn’t fight the ticket. It also helps to explain the specific steps you’ve taken to drive more carefully and safely since the violations.
In states that assess points for accidents, this may be your first opportunity to show the accident wasn’t your fault, was difficult to avoid, or was not part of an ongoing pattern of bad driving. Be prepared to do just that. Also, tell the hearing officers if it is essential that you commute to work or actually drive for your job, particularly if you will lose your job if you lose your license. Finally, if you drive 15,000 miles a year or more, you should mention this as well. Argue that since you drive more than average, your chances of getting tickets or having an accident are also above average.
How Point Systems Work
A “point” system assigns a certain number of points for each moving violation. A driver who gets too many points in too short a time loses his or her license. In some states points are also assessed for accidents, even if no court has found you to be at fault. While the details vary from state to state, most systems typically work like this:
State A: Each ordinary moving violation counts as a single point, except two points are assessed for speed violations where the speed is greatly in excess of the speed limit. A license is suspended when a driver receives four points in a year, six in two years, or eight in three years.
State B: Two points are assessed for what are classified as minor violations (an illegal turn or slightly exceeding the speed limit), with three, four, or five points assigned for more serious violations, like illegally running a stop sign or speeding. A license is suspended if a driver gets 12 points over three years.