What Works (and Doesn't Work) in Traffic Court

Choosing the right strategy can help you beat a traffic ticket.

Once you've decided to fight a traffic ticket, it's important to develop a traffic court strategy that has a chance of winning. Every case is different. So, the strategy that will give you the best chance of beating your ticket will depend on what traffic law you're accused of violation and the specific circumstances of your case.

Here's some general information about what can work and what typically doesn't work in traffic court trials.

Traffic Ticket Defenses that Can Succeed

No matter what violation you were ticketed for, knowing precisely how the offense is defined by law can be crucial to a successful defense in traffic court.

Here, the first step is to look up the law you're accused of violating. Generally, the officer who issues the ticket will write the common name of the offense (like "speeding" or "red light violation") and the number of the code section (something like "Vehicle Code section 22354"). With a quick internet search, you shouldn't have any problem coming up with the text of the law. Once you've found the statute, you can start to consider different possible defenses.

Show That a Necessary Element of the Traffic Offense Is Missing

Based on the legal definition contained in the statute, all offenses can be broken down into “elements.” Basically, the elements are the components that the state must prove to get a conviction. For instance, establishing a distracted driving violation might require proof of two basic elements: 1) the person was driving, and 2) the person was using a prohibited electronic device (like a cellphone). Whatever offense you’ve been cited for, if the state can’t prove even one element, the judge is supposed to find you not guilty. So, if you think the evidence is weak or absent as to any element, you probably want to direct that the judge's attention to the deficiency.

Challenge the Officer’s Subjective Conclusion

In some cases, challenging the police officer’s view of what happened may be a good strategy. Generally, this strategy is viable in ­situations where a cop must make a subjective judgment as to whether you violated an element of the offense.

For example, when an officer gives you a ticket for making an unsafe left turn, it’s based on the officer’s subjective determination that your actions were unsafe. In court, you might challenge the officer’s assessment and give reasons for why you believe the turn you made was safe. For instance, maybe the officer thought you were driving dangerously because your tires squealed, but the real reason for that was having new tires on a smooth road surface.

And in certain instances, establishing a speeding violation requires a subject judgment on the part of the officer that you were going an unsafe speed. This is the case when you're cited with violating a "presumed" speed limit or a "basic speeding law." With presumed and basic speed law violations, you can beat the ticket by showing that your speed was reasonable and safe given the circumstances existing at the time. Factors that might weigh in the driver’s favor include things like good weather conditions, light traffic, and a speed that was only slightly above the posted limit.

Challenge the Officer’s Observation of What Happened

Assume now your state law requires an objective observation by the officer, not a judgment call about whether your ­action was safe. For example, suppose you were cited for failing to come to a stop at a red light or making an illegal U-turn. ­

Defending this type of ticket often boils down to an argument about whose ­version of events is true. For example, you might say, “The light was still yellow when I ­entered the intersection.” But if the officer then says, “It was red ten feet before the driver got to the crosswalk,” the judge or jury must decide who to believe. Unfortunately, for a driver challenging a ticket, the person with the badge usually wins this debate ­unless there’s some reason to believe the officer’s ability to accurately perceive what happened was impeded. In other words, you can sometimes increase your odds of winning if you can show that the officer either couldn’t see what was going on or was too distracted with some other task to accurately assess the situation.

Here are some types of evidence that could help you convince a judge or jury the officer’s version of events is unreliable:

  • statements of witnesses, such as ­passengers or bystanders, who testify to your version of events.
  • a clear, easy-to-understand diagram showing where your vehicle and the officer’s ­vehicle were in relation to other traffic and key locations and objects, such as an intersection, traffic signal, or another vehicle (diagrams can be especially important for tickets given at intersections, such as right-of-way, stoplight, or stop sign violations), and
  • photographs of intersections, stop signs, and road conditions (these can be used to show conditions like obscured stop signs or other physical evidence that backs up your case).

Every situation is different. But whatever the particular circumstances, having something other than your own word to support your argument will increase your chances of winning.

Prove Your Conduct Was Based on a Legitimate “Mistake of Fact”

Judges are allowed some leeway in considering circumstances beyond your 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. For ­example, if you failed to stop at a stop sign after a major storm because the sign was hidden by a broken branch, a judge might let you off the hook.

A “mistake of law,” on the other hand, generally won’t do you any good. “Mistake of law” just means you didn’t know what you did was illegal. For example, if you get cited for speeding, not knowing the speed limit generally isn’t a valid defense.

Prove Your Conduct Was Necessary to Avoid Serious Harm

It doesn't happen very often, but there are instances where a driver might need to violate a traffic law to avoid greater harm. When this happens, a driver might be able to beat a ticket using the “legal necessity” defense. The key here is to convince the judge or jury that you were forced to violate the law in order to avoid a serious and immediate danger to yourself or others.

For example, suppose you swerved across a double yellow line to avoid hitting a pedestrian who jumped into the road all of a sudden. You broke the law by crossing the double yellow line, but you did so to avoid harming the pedestrian. In such a case, the legal necessity defense might do the trick.

Remember: You Normally Win If the Officer Fails to Show Up

Suppose you decide you don’t have much of a defense. For example, you ran a stop sign right in front of an officer or were caught doing 90 miles per hour on the freeway by an officer who paced you (drove behind you at the same speed) for two miles.

Obviously, the attractiveness of traffic school goes up as your chances of beating the ticket in court go down. But what should you do if you aren’t eligible for traffic school? Automatically pay the ticket?

You can consider one other ­possibility: Go to court and hope the officer doesn’t show up. When you appear for a traffic trial and the officer is a no show, the judge will typically dismiss the citation—meaning you win the case and don’t have to pay the fine or worry about the violation going on your record.

Defenses That Rarely Work

Let’s face it, saying “I didn’t do it,” or “the officer is ­lying,” without presenting any specifics to back up your contention isn’t likely to win your case. Similarly, generalized statements about the possible inadequacies of ­radar or laser techniques almost never result in the dismissal of a speeding ticket. Also, explaining the reason you violated the law (like "I didn't see the stop") isn't usually going to get you very far.

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