Appealing a Traffic Court Ruling

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

If you lose your traffic court trial and are convicted, you can appeal the conviction. However, winning any appeal (including that of a traffic violation conviction) is normally difficult. Here are some of the basics about how traffic appeals work.

Types of Traffic Appeals

Generally, an appeal isn't anything like a new trial. In an appeal, you don't get to present new evidence or have witnesses come and testify. The purpose of an appeal is to review what already happened at the trial for legal error. The court deciding the appeal starts with the presumption that the traffic court judge's decision was correct. To win the appeal, it's up to the driver to prove that that the traffic court judge didn't follow the law.

However, in some jurisdictions, the appellate court will review the traffic court's decision "de novo." In these jurisdictions, it's easier to win an appeal because "de novo" means the appellate court does not presume the correctness of the traffic judge's ruling. In other words, when an appeal is reviewed de novo, the appellate court will take a fresh look at all the evidence and make a decision without considering the conclusions of the traffic court judge.

Traffic Appeal Procedures

Laws governing appeals vary considerably from state to state, so start by checking your state's law. Generally, you can find the specifics of how to appeal a traffic court conviction on the court's website.

Notice of Appeal

Whatever the specific procedures are in your area, all traffic court appeals start with the driver filing a notice of appeal. In many jurisdictions, the driver must file the notice of appeal within 30 days of the conviction.

Appellate Record

The next order of business with appeals is producing what is called the "appellate record." In most criminal and civil cases, the appellate record consists of all the documents that were filed in the trial court and transcripts of all the hearings.

However, in traffic cases, there sometimes aren't court reports (hence no transcripts) and very often aren't any documents like motions and exhibits that that were filed in the traffic court. So, in many jurisdictions, the appellate record from traffic court trials will consist of only a "settled statement" of the facts. A settled statement is basically a summary of the evidence presented at trial. Normally, the driver and government must come to an agreement as to what the settled statement of facts will be for the appeal. The court will typically get involved in this process only when the driver and government can't reach an agreement.

Appellate Briefs

The "appellate briefs" are the most important part of any appeal. Appellate briefs are just written arguments that the driver and government submit to the appellate court. Generally, the first brief is called the "Opening Brief" and is submitted by the driver. The government then gets to respond in a "Response Brief." And the driver gets the final word in what's called the "Reply Brief."

Oral Argument

Once the briefs have all been turned into the court, the court will set an oral argument date. In many jurisdictions, oral argument is optional and will be held only if the driver or government requests it.

At oral argument, the parties have the opportunity to make their arguments in person. Typically, the judge or judges who will be deciding the appeal will have at least some questions to ask the parties.

Oral arguments in traffic cases are normally short—about 10 or 15 minutes maximum.

Appellate Decision

Typically, the appellate court will issue a written decision within a few weeks or so of the oral argument date. In the decision, the appellate court will generally affirm the conviction (meaning the driver loses the appeal) or reverse the conviction (meaning the driver wins the appeal). However, in some cases, the appellate court might affirm certain aspects of a conviction and reverse other aspects. For example, an appellate court might affirm the traffic conviction but order the traffic court to lower the driver's fine.

Talk to a Traffic Attorney

Appeals can be somewhat complicated and time-consuming. So, if you're thinking of appealing a traffic conviction, it might be worth hiring an attorney to handle your appeal instead of doing it yourself.

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