Beat Your Ticket
Go to Court & Win
Fight your traffic ticket in court!
David Brown, Attorney
August 2013, 7th Edition
Fight an unfair ticket in any state!
We've all received one -- a traffic ticket that seems completely unfair, the result of an officer's evening quota rather than a serious moving violation. But do you have to pay the penalty and watch your driving record crash and burn?
Not if you choose to fight back! With Nolo's Beat Your Ticket, you'll get the lowdown on the best strategies for beating traffic tickets in court. In plain English, you'll learn how to:
- use the law to fight an unwarranted ticket
- analyze the case and decide whether to fight or fold
- find out what the police officer plans to say at your trial
- find legal assistance and get the most out of it
- prepare witness testimony
- attack radar and other detection methods
- pick a jury
- present your case
- cross-examine the ticketing officer
Whether you want to contest a common speeding citation, a right-of-way violation, or a non-DUI alcohol-related offense, Beat Your Ticket clearly lays out your options. This edition is extensively updated to reflect your state's current traffic laws, including the latest rules, statistics, and court procedures.
Are you a California resident? Check out Fight Your Ticket & Win in California.
"Beat Your Ticket gives responsible motorists the means to protect their rights."
-James J. Baxter, President, National Motorists Association
"Covers…when to take the traffic-school option, how to research for court, and how to conduct yourself before the judge."-Dallas Morning News
David Brown practices law in the Monterey, California area, where he has represented both landlords and tenants in hundreds of court cases -- most of which he felt could have been avoided if both sides were more fully informed about landlord/tenant law. Brown, a graduate of Stanford University (chemistry) and the University of Santa Clara Law School, also teaches law at the Monterey College of Law.
Table of Contents
Your Legal Companion for Beating Your Ticket 1
First Things 3
A Tale of a Ticket 4
Are Tickets Impossible to Beat? 5
How This Book Is Organized 7
What Are You Charged With? 9
What Does the Law Say? 10
Finding Support Using Legal Research 13
Should You Fight Your Ticket? 19
Understanding Traffic Offenses 20
Negative Consequences of Getting a Ticket 23
The Traffic School Option 26
Deciding Whether to Fight Your Ticket 28
Putting It All Together - How to Decide Whether to Fight or Fold 32
Defenses That Rarely Work 33
Lawyers and What They Can Do For You? 35
What Lawyers Can Do 36
Types of Lawyers 38
Getting the Most Out of Your Lawyer 41
Firing Your Lawyer 41
Speed Violations: Understanding the Laws of Your State 43
Three Types of Speed Limits 44
"Absolute" Speed Limits 45
"Presumed" Speed Limits 46
The "Basic" Speed Law 50
Speed Detection: Pacing, Aircraft, VASCAR, Radar, and Laser - How They Work, How to Fight Them 53
Getting Caught 54
How Was Your Speed Measured? 55
Other Moving Violations 85
Not Stopping at Stop Signs 88
Not Stopping at a Stoplight 91
Automated Enforcement Devices ("Red Light Cameras") 93
Improper Turning 95
Right-of-Way Violations 105
Driving Too Slowly 111
Unsafe Lane Changes 116
Improper Passing 118
Non-DUI/DWI Alcohol-Related Offenses 121
Driving Under the Influence 127
The Standard Charges 133
The Arrest 137
The Arraignment 146
Interpreting the Police Report 149
Do You Need a Lawyer? 154
After the Arraignment 160
Pleading Guilty 161
Going to Trial 163
All About Alcohol 166
Additional Resources 170
First Steps to Fight Your Ticket 173
So You've Decided to Fight 174
Taking the First Steps 174
Using "Discovery" to Build Your Case 183
Preparing for Trial - Your Case 193
Asking for a "Continuance" (Postponement) 195
Gathering Your Notes and Research 197
Diagrams, Maps, and Pictures 198
Preparing Your Testimony 202
Preparing Your Witnesses 208
Preparing for the Prosecution's Cross-Examination 210
Preparing for Trial - The Officer's Testimony
and Cross-Examination 213
When and How to Object to Testimony 214
How to Cross-Examine the Officer 219
Trial Before a Judge (No Jury) 253
Trial Procedure 259
Appealing for a New Trial 278
Jury Trial 281
Try to Settle Your Case 283
Selecting the Jury 285
Trial Procedure 292
Preparing Jury Instructions 298
The Judge Instructs the Jury 299
Appeals From a Jury Verdict 300
What Are You Charged With?
What Does the Law Say?......................................................... 10
Use the Internet......................................................................... 10
Use Public and Law Libraries................................................. 11
Read the Law Carefully............................................................. 11
Finding Support Using Legal Research................................ 13
Finding Case Decisions........................................................... 13
Analyzing Court Decisions........................................................ 15
Can Other Laws Help Your Case?.......................................... 16
What Does the Law Say?
The first thing you need to do is find out what you are charged with—not just what your ticket says, but the exact words of the law you are charged with breaking. In some states, traffic laws are set out in a “Vehicle Code,” while in others they are gathered as part of a “Transportation Code,” “Motor Vehicle Laws,” or under some similar name. No two states have exactly the same traffic laws, but most are very similar.
Look for a number on your ticket that corresponds to the law (often called a “statute” or “vehicle code section”) you are charged with violating. Sometimes it will be hand printed by the officer in a box or blank; other times it’s preprinted on the ticket, with the officer simply checking the appropriate box. In either case, near the statute number you will often find a very short description of the law (for example, “VC [Vehicle Code Section] 22350—exceeding posted speed”). For speeding violations, in most states you’ll also find the speed the officer claims you were going, as well as the posted speed limit on the road where you were stopped.
Now you must look up and read the law the officer claims you violated.
Use the Internet
The fastest way to find your state’s traffic laws is to search online. On your state’s website, you can either do a search for the code number of the law or you can scroll through the index of laws usually highlighted on the state’s home page. Another option is to google the name of your state and the name of the code or the title of the law. For example, googling “Vermont excessive speed” results in several entries for Vermont Code § 1097, which sets out the law regarding excessive speed.
Be sure you are reading current law. Once you’ve found your state’s motor vehicle laws, make sure you have your hands on the latest version. This is particularly important if you use books, as described, below. Republished fairly infrequently, these law books are updated with paperback supplements inside the front or back cover.
Useful Internet Resources
Here is a list of some websites you can use to help you research your case:
The Legal Information Institute website at Cornell Law School has links to many states’ motor vehicle (traffic) codes, at
The Legal Research Center on Nolo’s website has information about conducting legal research and links to other online legal research resources, at http://www.nolo.com/legal-research/.
FindLaw’s Traffic Ticket Center provides links to state motor vehicle laws and more information about fighting traffic tickets. Go to
There are several other websites where groups and individuals provide traffic-ticket fighting strategies and information. The ones we like best are:
Use Public and Law Libraries
Most libraries have copies of their state’s vehicle laws. This could range anywhere from a single dog-eared volume containing just the fine-print text of traffic laws to a complete multivolume set of all the state’s laws. The bigger the library, the more likely it is to have a more comprehensive collection. It’s a good idea to call the reference librarian to see what’s available before making a trip. In most states you can usually use a courthouse or public law school law library, which will almost surely have a complete set of laws. Often the easiest way to find the text of the law you are charged with is to show your ticket to the research librarian and ask for directions to the proper book.
Read the Law Carefully
Once you find the law you are charged with, study it carefully to determine which facts the prosecution will have to prove to convict you. Many laws are complex. In fact, they are often so convoluted that it’s not uncommon to find, upon careful reading, that what you did was not, technically speaking, a violation of the exact words of the statute. Always ask yourself the question: What are the elements (or parts) of the offense I am charged with committing?
For example, in most states the law making U-turns illegal reads like this:
No person in a residence district shall make a U‑turn when any other vehicle is approaching from either direction within 200 feet, except at an intersection when the approaching vehicle is controlled by an official traffic-control device.
You should break this law down into its elements by drawing a line between each clause, like this:
No person in a residence district / shall make a U-turn / when any other vehicle is approaching from either direction / within 200 feet / except at an intersection / when the approaching vehicle / is controlled / by an official traffic-control device.
Focusing on each element of a law is often the key to unlocking an effective defense. That’s because to be found guilty of having made this illegal U-turn, the state must prove you violated every element of the offense. In this case, the state would have to show specifically that:
You were driving in a “residence district”
You drove your vehicle in a 180-degree turn, or “U-turn”
Another vehicle was approaching within 200 feet or fewer, in front of or behind you, and
An “official traffic-control device” at an “intersection” was not controlling the vehicle approaching you.
If you can show that your conduct didn’t violate any element of a traffic law, then the law was not violated and the charge should be dismissed. For example, you should be found not guilty if the area where you were ticketed was not a “residence district,” or the vehicle the officer claims was approaching was more than 200 feet away, or you were at an intersection controlled by an “official traffic control device.”
This type of word-by-word reading of statutes may seem hyper-technical, but it is commonly employed by lawyers and judges. The American legal system is built on the concept that you are innocent unless the state can prove you committed some clearly defined conduct—for example, driving a motor vehicle faster than 65 mph on a public road. (Note that even if you conclude you really have violated every element of a law, your case is not hopeless. In Chapter 3 we discuss other legal challenges you can make.)
Finding Support Using Legal Research
As discussed, our first step is to dissect the wording of the violation you are charged with to see if you committed every element of the offense. If, after doing this, you are not certain you can challenge the law on this ground, there are further steps you can take to build a strong defense. The key skill to build your defense is knowing how to research and understand the laws that apply to the particular legal problem. Fortunately, legal research isn’t difficult; you certainly don’t need a law degree to do it. The techniques needed for even fairly sophisticated legal research on traffic tickets can be learned in several hours. An excellent tool for helping you do this is the book Legal Research: How to Find & Understand the Law, by Steve Elias and the Editors of Nolo. Below I’ll briefly cover several key research techniques.
Finding Case Decisions
Once a law is written, judges use real-life situations to interpret it. Sometimes these decisions (called cases) will make a huge difference to your situation. For example, in all states, speeding for the purpose of being a show-off is a crime called “exhibition of speed.” But an appeals court in California expanded the law to include screeching a car’s tires (or burning rubber) to impress listeners who can’t necessarily see you. This unusual expansion of the words “exhibition of speed” is something you would never know by reading the law alone.
In another example, Ohio’s speeding law says you must drive at a “reasonable and prudent” speed. But it does not say whether it is legal to drive over the posted speed limit. A state appeals court ruled, however, that the wording of the law allowed motorists to drive above the posted speed if they are being “reasonable and prudent.” Without reading the appeals court decision, the average person would not know that it was legal to drive above the posted speed limit in Ohio.
Don’t waste time researching a law that is simple and clear. If you are charged with failure to make a complete stop at a stop sign, you probably do not need to research case law. Reading the law itself is probably enough. It’s usually a pretty clear law and unlikely to have been changed through court decisions. On the other hand, if the law you’re charged under is a bit more complex, case law research can help you answer questions that the statutes or laws themselves don’t address. For example, this could be true in a case involving a “presumed” speed law where your right to see a copy of the officer’s notes in advance of the trial has been denied.
To learn more about how a law has been interpreted, look for your state’s annotated codes. Annotated codes are a set of laws that contain summaries of court decisions beneath each entry.
The simplest way to find annotated codes is through the Internet. Private Internet services such as LexisNexis (www.lexisnexis.com), Versuslaw (www.versuslaw.com), and FindLaw (www.findlaw.com) provide annotated codes—as well as case decisions—but you’ll have to pay a fee to access them. (We recommend Versuslaw, as it is the least expensive service, and you can use your credit card to pay for services.) You may also be able to find case law regarding certain types of motor vehicle statues by using an Internet search engine such as Google.
You can also find actual hard copy sets of annotated laws in law libraries, at publicly funded law schools, at principal county courthouses (usually open to the public), and at private law schools where the public is sometimes allowed access. Some larger public libraries also stock sets of annotated codes. Annotated codes are indexed by topic and are kept up to date each year with paperback supplements (called “pocket parts”), located in a replaceable pocket in the front or back cover of each volume. If you decide to go to the library to look up the codes, don’t forget to look through these pocket parts for any law changes or case decisions occurring since the hardcover volume was printed.
Analyzing Court Decisions
Once you find the law you are accused of violating in the annotated law books, skim the brief summaries of the court decisions that interpret the law. Look first for relatively recent cases that involve situations similar to yours where a judge ruled in favor of the defendant because of some circumstances that you, too, might be able to prove. Assuming you find a summary that you think might apply to you, you’ll need to read the court’s full written opinion to see if it really makes a point that helps you beat your ticket.
Make note of the “citation” for the relevant case. This consists of a shorthand identification of the page, volume, and set of law books where the decision or case can be found. (See “How Citations Work,” below.) In most states, there are two different sets of volumes of books containing the court decisions, and you’ll be given a citation to each, one after the other. It makes no difference which one you use.
If you find annotations to several cases that fit your facts, look first at the most recent one (newer cases often reinterpret or supersede older ones) decided by your state’s highest court (called the supreme court in every state except New York and Maryland). Cases from your state’s intermediate level appeals courts are valid unless overruled by that state’s supreme court.
Finally, you should look at the actual case (not just the summary in the annotated codes). If you are doing your research online using one of the for-pay services, such as Versuslaw, there will probably be a link to the case within the annotated code. Or you can find it by typing the citation into the site’s search engine. If you are doing your research in a law library, take the citation to the librarian and ask for help.
In the law library—show the law librarian your citation, and
Online—if you use one of the for-pay services, such as Versuslaw, you should be able to locate it by typing the citation into the site’s search engine.
For some helpful free information online, check out Nolo’s website (www.nolo.com), which contains detailed information on how to do legal research, including how to find and interpret cases.
How Citations Work
Decisions of a state’s highest court look like this: 155 Cal 422. The first number refers to the 155th volume of California Supreme Court decisions (Cal = California), and the second number directs you to page 422. Similarly, 55 Pa. 345 refers to the 55th volume of the decisions of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, page 345. In addition, many case citations also may list a 2d, 3d, or 4th after the state abbreviation. Each refers to one of the chronological series of case volumes for that state. For example, the 2nd series might cover cases from 1960 to 1985, and the 3rd series 1986 to the present.
Can Other Laws Help Your Case?
Understanding the specific law you violated—and the cases that interpret that law—is just part of your job. Since each law is written to deal with a very specific action (for example, exceeding the speed limit), other laws may also have a bearing on your case. Or put another way, the legal interpretation of one traffic law can sometimes affect another.
Here are some examples:
Section 123.45.678 of your state’s motor vehicle law forbids exceeding 25 mph in a residential district. But section 123.45.605 says all your state’s speed limits are “presumed” limits. This means even though you may have technically violated Section 123.45.678, you might be able to successfully claim that it was legal to do so because Section 123.45.605 allows you to exceed the speed limit when driving safely under the circumstances (see Chapter 5 for more on “presumed” speed limits).
You are ticketed for a violation of Section 123.45.654 of your state’s vehicle code for making a U-turn in a “residential district.” But Section 123.45.666 defines a residential district as an area with at least four houses per acre of land. Since you made your U-turn in an area with fewer houses per acre than are listed in statute 123.45.666, you can argue you are not guilty of every element of Section 123.45.654 and are, therefore, not guilty.
You are charged with speeding based on the reading of a radar gun used by the police officer. Your ticket says you are charged with a violation of Section 123.45.765 of the vehicle code, speeding. But Section 345.67.898 of the vehicle code says an officer must follow certain procedures in using radar, and you can prove the officer did not follow the proper procedures (see Chapter 6 for more on radar defenses).
To find information about other laws related to your case, like these here, you will have to search the annotated codes using terms that you believe relate to your ticket. (If you’re doing your research using the hard copy books in the library, look up relevant subjects in the index.) Then you need to look up the laws related to those subjects and look for the “annotated” cases listed below the code, just as you did above.