If you get cited for a traffic violation, you’ll typically have several alternatives for dealing with it. For instance, for some drivers, admitting guilt and accepting traffic school is a good option. But if you decide you want to fight the ticket, you’re going to want to do some research—especially if you don’t hire a traffic attorney. (Here are some things to consider before deciding whether to hire a traffic lawyer.) This article provides some insight on how to go about researching traffic laws.
The first thing you need to do is find the exact words of the law you are charged with violating. In some states, traffic laws are set out in a “Vehicle Code.” Other states put traffic laws in the “Transportation Code,” “Motor Vehicle Laws,” or under some similar name.
Your citation should tell you the code section you allegedly violated. 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. You might see something like, “VC 22350”—meaning “Vehicle Code section 22350.” Or “TC 545.351,” for “Transportation Code section 545.351.”
The fastest way to find your state’s traffic laws is to search online. All state legislatures have public websites where the laws of the state—including traffic laws—can be found. You might also try a google search of the statute you’re looking for. Google can be especially helpful if you don’t know the number of the statute: Just search a term like “Vermont speeding laws” and look for results that provide the number you’re trying to find.
Once you find the law you’re accused of breaking, read it carefully. The penalties for traffic offense are typically less severe than those for more serious violations of the law. But the state—either a prosecutor or the citing officer—still has the burden of proving you committed the offense. When you read a statute, you want to figure out exactly what components—called the “elements”—make up a violation of the law.
For example, an illegal U-turn statute might say: “No person in a residence district shall make a U‑turn when any other vehicle is approaching from either direction within 200 feet.” So, to prove a violation, the state would have to show:
If the state can’t prove even one element, the judge or jury is supposed to find you not guilty—meaning you beat the ticket. So, for fighting a ticket, it’s important to be aware of exactly what the elements are.
Sometimes, looking at the text of a law doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, statutes can be ambiguous or fail to provide a necessary definition. The job of appellate courts is to interpret and explain the law—particularly when the statute itself has some obvious deficiencies. The way appellate courts do this is by publishing written decisions (called “case law”) in which they apply the law to the real-life scenarios from actual traffic cases.
For example, California has a law that prohibits “exhibition of speed” on a highway. Though you might not expect it by reading the statute, a California appellate court found that screeching a car’s tires comes within the definition of an exhibition of speed. So in this instance, it’s important to not only be aware of the text of the law, but also the case law interpreting it. (Cal. Veh. Code § 23109; In re F. E., 67 Cal.App.3d 222 (1977).)
Finding and interpreting relevant case law is trickier than locating a statute. Online resources—such as LexisNexis and Westlaw—are available, but typically charge a fee. And navigating these legal search engines isn’t easy. Your best bet—if you’re not going to hire an attorney—is probably to go to a public law library and enlist the help of a librarian.
(Get more information about legal research.)