Traffic Court: Getting the Police Officer's Notes

To effectively fight a speeding or traffic ticket, get the police officer's notes before you go to court. Here's how.

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After issuing a speeding or other traffic ticket, most police officers write notes -- usually on the back of the ticket -- with details of why you deserved the ticket and what the conditions were at the time. If you can obtain those notes before your traffic court hearing, you'll be ahead of the game.

Just before trial, the officer will typically review those notes, and sometimes refer to them while testifying. With courtroom experience, an officer can often glance down at the notes every few seconds, rattling off a narrative that sounds like it happened yesterday. But the officer probably won't remember much about what happened and doesn't want to be tripped up by fabricating a detail, so will probably depart very little from those notes.

Get the Officer's Notes

If you can obtain those notes before your traffic court trial, you may be able to glean the officer's strategy for convicting you. Fortunately, in many states you have the right to demand access to the officer's notes through a process called "discovery." You also have the right to demand access to other information, like instruction manuals on the use of equipment that was used to clock your speed. This information can be a huge help when cross-examining the officer and presenting your own case at trial. Ask your local court if you have the right of "discovery" and how to write a letter demanding access to the policeman's notes.

To obtain the officer's notes, you must make a specific written request for the disclosure of all notes or documents relevant to your case. If you have an arraignment, you may be able to do this there. But if you plead not guilty and post bail without an arraignment (far more common), you'll need to make your request promptly by mail. Send your discovery request to both the police agency that ticketed you and to the local prosecuting agency.

If Your Discovery Request is Ignored

Because so few defendants ask to see the evidence against them, many police, prosecutors, and even some judges believe this discovery right is not available in traffic court. Accordingly, you may find your discovery request is ignored. If so, you'll need to persist in making this request, reiterating that you believe access to the officer's notes is critical to presenting your defense.

If you get no response to your discovery request within three weeks, you will need to go to court and make a "pre-trial motion" to ask the judge to order the police to release the notes to you. If your discovery request has still been ignored when your trial date rolls around, you may want to ask the judge to dismiss your case. For more information on how to write a motion to compel discovery or dismiss, see  Beat Your Ticket: Go to Court & Win!, by David Brown (Nolo).

What to Do With the Officer's Notes

If you receive a copy of the officer's notes, you'll want to study them carefully. It's possible that these notes may cause you to re-evaluate your defense strategy, since you know what the officer is going to say at trial. Here are some things to look for:

  • Amount of detail. If the officer's notes don't say much, he probably won't have much to say at trial, unless you gave him a reason to remember your specific case (a big reason why it's never wise to behave like an idiot when you are pulled over). On the other hand, the more detailed his notes (such as a fact-specific statement convincingly laying out what you did), the better he'll probably sound at trial.
  • What the notes don't say. If the notes lack key details, you may be able to challenge the officer's memory. Look to see if the notes:
    • Mention which lane you were in.
    • Say exactly how the officer recorded your speed, if you were cited for speeding. (For example, if pacing was used, how far the officer paced you before stopping your vehicle.)
    • Have detailed specific information about road and weather conditions and other nearby vehicles. For example, if you were cited for an unsafe turn across traffic, the notes should detail the exact traffic situation justifying the officer's judgment call.
    • Report where the officer was when he observed you.
  • Diagrams. Police will often make a diagram on the ticket, especially with violations that occur at intersections, like running a stop sign or stoplight, making an unsafe turn, or failing to yield. If the officer does a careful job of including significant details, he will probably look well prepared in court. If not, you have a better chance to raise a reasonable doubt as to your guilt by demonstrating through cross-examination that the officer can't honestly remember what happened.
  • Driver statements. Most officers will note any admissions made by the driver on pulling him or her over ("said she was going 70, asked for a break"), sometimes quoting them directly. ("Yes, I ran the stop sign, but my daughter's pet iguana was sick and I had to get her to the vet.") Of course, you are far better off if there are no such admissions written down.

For strategies, tips, facts and figures for contesting a traffic ticket in any state, get Beat Your Ticket: Go to Court & Win, by David Brown (Nolo).

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