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

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

Here are some traffic court strategies that may—depending on the facts of your case—help you avoid having to pay a traffic ticket.

Show That a Necessary Element of the Traffic Offense Is Missing

Your first step should be to study the exact language of the law (code section or statute) you were charged with violating. 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 or jury 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 or jury’s attention to the deficiency.

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.

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 some states, establishing a speeding violation requires a subject judgment on the part of the officer that you were going an unsafe speed. That’s because in these states the posted speed limit isn’t an absolute limit but a “presumed” or “prima facie” limit. With presumed and prima facie limits, the posted speed creates just a presumption that the driver has broken the law—the driver still has an opportunity to prove to the court that speed was safe under the circumstances. And if the driver is successful at doing so, the jury or jury is supposed to find the driver not guilty. So, presumed or prima facie limits open the door for defendants to challenge an officer’s subjective judgement. 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. (Read more about the different types of speed limits.)

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).
  • 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).

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

Even if you technically violated a statute, consider whether you have a good defense based on the argument that 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.

(Read more about the difference between mistake of fact and mistake of law.)

Prove Your Conduct Was “Legally Justified”

In some situations, you can beat a ticket by arguing your actions were “legally justified.” For example, if you were charged with ­driving too slowly in the left lane, it’s a legal defense in all states that you had to slow down to make a lawful left turn. Legal justification ­defenses are sometimes preferable to other defenses because you raise them by establishing an additional fact or legal point rather than simply contradicting the officer’s testimony.

Prove Your Conduct Was Necessary to Avoid Serious Harm

Emergencies—not of your own making—can provide grounds to a “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.

Here are a couple of other examples where this defense might work:

  • You’re forced to stop on a freeway ­because your car began making a loud and dangerous-sounding noise, and you feared you would put other drivers in ­danger if you continued to drive without checking it out.
  • Your child was severely injured and you exceeded the posted speed limit to get him to the hospital quickly.

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 dismissal of a speeding ticket. Below are a few examples of defenses that rarely succeed:

  • You claim you were honestly mistaken about the law (as opposed to a particular fact, as would be the case with a hidden stop sign).
  • You argue your violation didn’t harm ­anybody. (The fact that your illegal conduct wasn’t dangerous isn’t a winning defense, except when you are cited exceeding a presumed or prima facie speed limit.)
  • "The officer was picking on me.” This is called “selective enforcement” and is often raised by a motorist who claims the ticketing officer ignored others who were also violating the law. To win with a “selective enforcement” defense, you have to take a huge ­additional step and show that the officer had a specific and improper ­motive to pick on you.

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