When you get a traffic ticket, it basically means you're accused of violating a traffic law. But the government can't penalize you for the violation unless you're actually convicted (either by admitting the violation or being found guilty at trial). If you're considering fighting your ticket, here are some strategies you might want to consider.
Although there's not much actual strategy involved, drivers sometimes beat tickets in court just by showing up. At traffic trials, the driver and the officer who wrote the ticket must be present. If the driver shows up and the officer doesn't, the driver generally wins without having to do anything. The judge dismissed the ticket, and that's the end of it.
With some traffic violations, it comes down to whether the officer's subjective conclusion is reasonable. For example, most states have a "basic speed law" that—regardless of the posted speed limit—prohibits motorists from driving faster than is "reasonable and prudent" given the current road and traffic conditions. Similarly, you can get a ticket for following too closely in most states for following another car at a distance that is closer than is "reasonable and prudent" given the current circumstances.
When an officer issues a ticket for these types of violations, it's based on the officer's subjective judgment that the driver's actions were not reasonable and prudent. To beat one of these tickets in court, the driver's task is to cast doubt on the officer's conclusion. In other words, the driver will want to highlight all the factors that would support a finding that he or she was driving safely—circumstances like good weather and visibility and slow driving speeds. Depending on the circumstances, the driver might also be able to bolster his or her argument by pointing out that the officer didn't have a good vantage point to accurately assess the situation.
With many types of violations, the accuracy of the officer's observations is key. For example, with stop sign and red light tickets (assuming we're not talking about a red light camera ticket), the government's evidence that you committing the violation will generally be limited to the officer simply testifying that he or she saw you run the stop sign or red signal.
When you're fighting a violation of this type, you normally want to avoid making it an issue of your word against that of the officer. Instead, it's generally more productive to focus on whether the officer was in a position to accurately observe the alleged violation. For example, you might be able to show that the officer was too far away to have a good view or that the officer's vantage point was obstructed by something like another car, a hill, or a tree. When making this kind of argument, diagrams and photographs can be helpful.
Judges often give some leeway with regard to circumstances beyond a driver's control. If you can show that you made an honest and reasonable error, a judge might find you made a "mistake of fact" and dismiss your ticket.
Every situation is different. But as an example, a judge might accept the mistake-of-fact defense in a case where you failed to stop at a stop sign because it was partially blocked by a broken tree branch. Even where an explanation doesn't amount to a full legal defense to the violation, the judge might accept your explanation as grounds to lower the fine amount.
Emergencies—not of your own making—can justify a violation under the "necessity" defense. The key to this defense is to prove that it was necessary to commit the violation in order to avoid a much greater harm. For example, an unlicensed driver who nevertheless gets behind the wheel to transport a seriously injured child to the hospital could likely beat a ticket for driving without a license under the necessity defense.
In case it isn't obvious, a legitimate necessity defense doesn't come up very often.