What Works (and Doesn’t Work) in Traffic Court
Choosing the Right Strategy
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Here are some strategies in traffic court that may —depending on the facts of your case—help you avoid liability for a traffic ticket.
Prove a Necessary Element of Your Ticket Is Missing
Your first step should be to study the exact language of the law (code section or statute) you were charged with violating. The key fact to remember: If you can prove even one element of the infraction is missing from the facts, you should be found not guilty.
Remember! No Matter Your Defense, You Normally Win If the Officer Fails to Show Up
Suppose you decide you don’t have much of a defense. For example, you ran a stop sign right in front of an officer or were caught doing 90 mph on the freeway with a 65-mph limit by an officer who paced you for two miles. Obviously, the attractiveness of traffic school goes up as your chances of beating the ticket in court go down. But what should you do if you aren’t eligible for traffic school? Automatically pay the ticket? You can consider one other possibility—although it is often a long shot: The officer may not show up in court. In that case, in most states your ticket will probably be dismissed. But don’t count on this happening. It’s true that sometimes an officer misses a court appearance while on vacation, due to illness, a scheduling conflict, or other reasons, but officers commonly show up. And the more serious the violation, the more the odds increase of an officer’s appearance.
Challenge the Officer’s Subjective Conclusion
Remember, in many states, with many tickets, it’s perfectly possible—and sometimes even fairly easy—to challenge the police officer’s view of what happened. This is particularly likely in situations where a cop must make a subjective judgment as to whether you violated an element of the offense in a situation where no accident ensued. For example, when an officer gives you a ticket for making an unsafe left turn, you may argue that your actions were safe and responsible, considering the prevailing traffic conditions. Of course, it will help your case if you can point to facts that tend to show that the cop was not in a good location to accurately view what happened or was busy doing other tasks (driving 50 mph in heavy traffic, for example.
In about 20 states, deciding whether it is safe to exceed the speed limit is another circumstance where a subjective judgment must be made. That’s because in these states the posted speed limit is not an absolute limit, but only creates a legal presumption as to the safe speed for that road. This in turn raises the possibility of challenging the officer’s judgment by proving it was safe to slightly exceed the posted limit.
Challenge the Officer’s Observation of What Happened
Assume now your state law requires an objective observation by the officer, not a judgment call about whether your action was safe. This would be true if you were cited for failing to come to a stop at a red light or making a prohibited turn. Defending this type of ticket often boils down to an argument about whose version of the facts is correct. For example, if you say, “The light was still yellow when I entered the intersection,” the officer is likely to reply, “It was red, red, red, ten feet before the driver got to the crosswalk.” In disputes like this, the person with the badge usually wins unless you can cast real doubt on the officer’s ability to accurately perceive what happened. Fortunately, despite the fact that most judges tend to believe cops, there are a number of types of evidence that may work to raise at least a reasonable doubt as to your guilt.
Here are the types of evidence most likely to help you convince a judge:
- Statements of witnesses, such as passengers or bystanders, who testify to your version of events.
- A clear, easy-to-understand diagram showing where your vehicle and the officer’s vehicle were in relation to other traffic and key locations and objects, such as an intersection, traffic signal, or another vehicle. Diagrams are especially important for tickets given at intersections, such as right-of-way, stoplight, or stop sign violations.)
- Photographs of intersections, stop signs, and road conditions. These can be used to show conditions like obscured stop signs or other physical evidence that backs up your case.
- Any other evidence that would cast doubt on the officer’s ability to accurately observe your alleged violation. A classic way to do this is to prove the officer’s view was obscured or that his or her angle of observation made it impossible to accurately see what happened.
Prove Your Conduct Was Based on a Legitimate “Mistake of Fact”
Even if you technically violated a statute, consider whether you have a good defense based on the argument that your conduct was based on a legitimate mistake.
Judges are allowed some leeway in considering circumstances beyond your control. If you can show that you made an honest and reasonable error, a judge might find you made a “mistake of fact” that means your ticket should be dismissed—for example, if you failed to stop at a stop sign after a major storm because the sign was hidden by a broken branch. However, a judge would probably not buy this defense if the sign had been up for more than a few weeks, you drove that route every day, or you were traveling 50 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone.
Prove Your Conduct Was “Legally Justified”
You may also successfully argue that your actions were “legally justified” considering the circumstances of your alleged violation. For example, if you were charged with driving too slowly in the left lane, it is a legal defense in all states that you had to slow down to make a lawful left turn. In this situation you do not have to deny that you were driving significantly below the speed limit and causing vehicles behind you to slow down, but you can offer the additional fact that legally justifies your otherwise unlawful action. Such defenses can be very successful because they raise an additional fact or legal point, rather than simply contradicting the officer’s testimony.
Here are a couple of examples of situations in which this defense might work:
- You are forced to stop on a freeway because your car began to make a loud and dangerous-sounding noise, and you feared you would put other drivers in danger if you continued to drive without checking it out.
- You swerved into the right lane without signaling a lane change to pull over because a hornet flew into your car through your open window.
- You had sudden and severe chest pain and safely exceeded the posted speed limit to get to the doctor, whose office was only one-half mile away.
Prove Your Conduct Was Necessary to Avoid Serious Harm
Emergencies not of your own making are often another legal “necessity” defense recognized in all 50 states. The key here is to convincingly argue that you were forced to violate the exact wording of a traffic law in order to avoid a serious and immediate danger to yourself or others—for example, you swerve across a double yellow line to avoid hitting another vehicle, pedestrian, animal, or other unexpected obstacle. If you had failed to take such an evasive action, you would have been at high risk of being involved in an accident.
Defenses That Rarely Work
Face it, saying “I didn’t do it,” or “the officer’s lying,” without presenting any specifics to back up your contention is highly unlikely to result in your being found not guilty. Similarly, generalized statements about the possible inadequacies of radar or laser techniques almost never result in your beating a speeding ticket. Even if you successfully point out minor inaccuracies on your ticket, such as the officer mistaking the color, make, or model of your car when writing the ticket, you will rarely get off (assuming, of course, the officer appears in court and convincingly explains why your conduct was illegal). Below we present a laundry list of poor defenses:
- You claim you were honestly mistaken about the law (as opposed to a particular fact, as would be the case with a hidden stop sign).
- You argue your violation didn’t harm anybody. The fact that your illegal conduct was not dangerous is not a winning defense, except when you are cited for speeding in states where it can be legal to exceed the posted speed.
- "The officer was picking on me.” This is called “selective enforcement” and is often raised by a motorist who claims the ticketing officer ignored others who were also violating the law. To win with a “selective enforcement” defense, you have to take a huge additional step and show that the officer had a specific and improper motive to pick on you.
- Tell a sympathetic story. The fact that your child, your mother, or your parakeet was ill will not get you off.