Cross-Examining a Police Officer in Traffic Court

Questioning the testifying officer during a traffic trial.

When you get cited for a traffic violation, you’ll generally have several options for dealing with your ticket. These might include traffic school, paying the citation, and contesting the ticket by requesting a trial. If you opt to fight your ticket at trial, the government will need to prove in court that you committed the violation.

In most traffic trial—except those for red light camera tickets—the government proves its case primarily through the testimony of the officer who issued the ticket. In other words, the officer explains to the judge what happened and why you were cited for a traffic violation. Once the officer is done giving his or her side of the story, the defendant (the person who received the citation) or the defendant’s attorney has the opportunity to ask the officer questions. The defense questioning is called “cross-examination.” This article gives some basic information about cross-examination in traffic cases.

CONSIDER HIRING A TRAFFIC ATTORNEY

Lots of people don’t hire an attorney for a traffic ticket. And in many situations, hiring an attorney to handle a traffic ticket might not be worth it. For instance, if you’re planning to admit the violation and pay the ticket or request traffic school, you might be okay without an attorney. But traffic trials can be tricky for a person who has no formal legal training. If you plan to contest your traffic citation in court, it’s probably a good idea to at least talk to a few attorneys first. Lots of attorneys give free initial consultations to prospective clients. (Read more about hiring an attorney for a traffic ticket.)

What’s the Goal of Cross-Examination?

With cross-examination, you’re generally trying to raise doubt about the government’s evidence against you. In other words, the goal is to make the judge question whether the government has adequately proven you violated the law.

Depending on the type of violation and the facts of the case, the specific goal of cross-examination may be to show:

  • the officer didn’t have a good vantage to point to see whether you broke the law or not
  • the equipment the officer used to clock your speed (typically, by radar or lidar) wasn’t properly maintenanced (read about fighting a speeding ticket), or
  • the officer was paying attention to something else when you alleged committed the violation.

Whatever the strategy, it’s typically best to come up with that strategy in advance of trial rather than on the fly. That way, you’ll have an idea of the types of questions you want to ask on cross-examination.

What Kinds of Questions are You Allowed to Ask?

Generally, you’re allowed to ask any questions that are relevant to whether you committed the traffic violation you were cited for. Relevant questions will typically be related to whether the evidence against you is reliable. For instance, if the officer testifies to seeing you run a stop sign, it would be relevant to ask on cross-examination where the officer was positioned when he or she allegedly watched you go past the stop line. If the officer was in a spot that was far away or there were intervening objects that could have obstructed the officer’s view, the judge might start to doubt the officer’s account of events.

Judges will typically give the defendant or the defendant’s attorney some leeway in asking questions. But at the same time, traffic trials aren’t supposed to last all day. So, most judges want you to get to the point and may cut you off if you go too far down a line of questioning that doesn’t seem relevant.

How Should You Prepare for Cross-Examination?

Research the law. At a traffic trial, the government must prove you committed the offense. Otherwise, the judge is supposed to find you not guilty. So, a good starting point for preparing for cross-examination is researching the traffic law you’re accused of violating. If you know what the government has to prove, it might help you decide on a plan for cross-examining the officer.

List of questions. Although you might have your trial strategy in mind, it’s easy to lose track of what you’re doing when you’re actually in court. A list of questions categorized by topic can help keep you organized while conducting your cross-examination. You can always improvise if necessary, but by having your questions written down, you can be sure you won’t forget an important point.

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