What Happens in Traffic Court?

By , Attorney · University of Santa Clara Law School

In most states, you don't have the right to a jury trial for minor traffic offenses like speeding, running a red light, and distracted driving. So, if you want to fight a traffic ticket, your guilt will likely be decided by a single judge rather than a jury. Non-jury trials are often called "bench trials." Every jurisdiction does things a little differently. But here are some of the basics of what happens at traffic bench trials.

Traffic Court Is Different Than Criminal Court

Although minor traffic infractions are technically considered crimes in most states, they usually aren't handled in criminal courtrooms. Criminal courts are typically reserved for more serious misdemeanor and felony offenses that can lead to jail time. Only the most serious driving-related offenses like driving under the influence (DUI), reckless driving, and vehicular homicide go to criminal court. Drivers who receive tickets for violating less serious traffic laws will go to traffic court.

Traffic courts are somewhat less formal than other courtrooms. In traffic court, there's generally no right to a court-appointed attorney. So, unlike in criminal court, you'll see lots of people without legal counsel representing themselves. Also, the stakes in traffic court are lower than they are in criminal court—typically, the worst thing that can happen in traffic court is the driver is found guilty and must pay a fine. These—and perhaps other—factors contribute to a less intimidating and less rigid atmosphere than what you mind find in other types of courtrooms.

How Traffic Trials Get Started

On any given day in traffic court, there are usually quite a few cases scheduled for trial. Typically, how it works is the clerk calls each case, and the driver and officer who issued the ticket come up to the front. If the driver is present but the officer isn't, the driver essentially wins the trial and the judge dismisses the ticket. But if both parties are there, the trial will begin.

In most trials, the attorneys make opening statements in which they explain to the jury what they think the evidence will show. But the evidence that's presented at traffic trials is usually fairly straightforward and traffic courts are normally quite busy. So, traffic court judges typically aren't interested in hearing opening statements.

Instead, after the traffic court clerk calls the case, the government will start presenting its evidence.

The Government's Evidence

In most traffic cases, the government's evidence consists of only the testimony of the officer who gave the ticket. In some states, prosecuting attorneys represent the state in traffic court trials. But in many states, there aren't prosecutors in traffic court. So, depending on whether there is a prosecutor, the officer will either answer questions posed by the prosecutor or just tell the story and answer any questions the judge might have. When the officer is finished, the driver or driver's attorney has an opportunity to cross-examine the officer and ask questions of their own.

Making Objections in Traffic Court

Despite the informalities of traffic court, the rules of evidence still apply. So, the driver or driver's attorney can make objections to the officer's testimony or other evidence presented by the government.

Officer Reading From Notes

Immediately after issuing your citation, some police officers will note what happened on the back of their copy or on a separate piece of paper. Officers make notes because they issue lots of tickets, and if one of these tickets ultimately ends up in trial, it can be hard to remember precisely what happened without the notes.

But in most states, it is technically improper for the officer to simply read directly from notes (or from any other document) while testifying in court. Notes and other documents can be used by a witness to refresh his or her memory, but the testimony of the witness must be based on memory rather than read directly from notes.

So, if an officer is obviously reading directly from notes, you can make a "hearsay" objection. In response to this type of objection, the judge will normally ask the officer to state what he or she is looking at (the notes) and then look up when done reviewing the document. In other words, the judge will let the officer review the notes but then require that the officer's testimony actually come from his or her recollection.

If you don't have a copy of the notes the officer is reviewing (it's possible you might have obtained these through the discovery process), you should ask for a copy or an opportunity to review the notes.

Lack of Foundation for Device Measurements (Speeding Tickets)

Most speeding violation tickets are based on an officer's radar or LIDAR speed measurement. But a measurement is only as good as the measuring device. So, it's important that speed-measuring devices be operating properly. Otherwise, the speed measurement could be inaccurate.

Officers in speeding ticket cases almost always testify that they clocked the driver at a certain speed. If possible, before the officer specifically makes this statement object for "lack of foundation." If prompted by the judge, you can explain the officer's testimony as to speed lack foundation unless the officer can establish that the radar or other instrument was properly maintenanced and calibrated.

Hearsay Objections Generally

An officer reading from notes (addressed above) is a specific instance of a hearsay violation. However, more generally, hearsay is defined as an out-of-court statement admitted for the truth of that statement. The most common type of hearsay is where a witness testifies in court as to what someone else said or wrote.

Sometimes it's a little tricky to recognize hearsay. But, generally, a witness can testify only as to what he or she personally observed. If a witness's testimony strays from his or her own observations, it's likely hearsay and time to make the objection.

Unfortunately, there are a number of exceptions to the hearsay rule, which allow certain types of hearsay to be considered by a judge or jury. Probably the most common in traffic court allows an officer to testify to any statements you made, which would tend to prove your guilt. This exception is called a "statement against interest" by a party.

EXAMPLE: Your vehicle collides with another at an intersection controlled by stop signs at all four entrances. You tell the officer you entered the intersection first, and that the other driver ignored the stop sign. But based on the statements of the other driver and a bystander, the officer concludes you were at fault for failing to yield to the vehicle to your right. You contest the ticket and go to trial. In court, the officer appears, but neither the other driver nor the bystander is present. When the officer testifies what the driver and bystander said about the accident, you should object based on hearsay.

The Driver's Chance to Present Evidence

Once the government has presented all of its evidence, the driver has a chance to present evidence. The driver might want to testify or present physical evidence like photos and the like.

For example, for a stop sign ticket, a driver might want to present a photo to the court showing the sign was obscured by tree branches. Or, if a driver was cited for a basic speed law violation (unsafe speed), he or she might want to testify that road and weather conditions were good at the time of the alleged violation.

And the Verdict Is ...

Some judges might allow for closing arguments. But, typically, traffic court judges announce the verdict—find the defendant guilty or not guilty—once the parties are done presenting evidence.

In most cases, judges state the amount of the fine immediately after announcing a guilty verdict. In some states, a driver might still be able to do traffic school even after being convicted at trial. For drivers who are interested in this option, it probably wouldn't hurt to ask the judge.

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