Fight Your Speeding Ticket

Speeding tickets are, by far, the most common moving violation. If you want to fight your ticket, here are some things you should know about.

By , Attorney · University of Santa Clara Law School

Speeding is one of the most common moving violations. If you want to fight a speeding ticket, it's important to know:

  • what type of speed limit you're accused of violating: "absolute," "presumed," or a "basic" speed law, and
  • how the officer measured your speed (pacing, aircraft, radar, LIDAR, or VASCAR).

This article covers the first piece—the different types of speed limits.

Avoiding a Speeding Ticket: Know the Limits

There are three types of speed limits that states use. We call these "absolute" (or "maximum"), "presumed" (or "prima facie"), and "basic" speed limits. Most states use two of the three types, while others use all three or only one type.

Because the available defenses are different for each type of speed-limit violation, it is key to understand which you are charged with violating.

Absolute (Maximum) Speed Limits

Most states have some absolute speed limits. There is no trick to how these limits work: If the sign says the maximum speed limit is 40 miles per hour and you drive 41 miles per hour or more, you've violated the law.

Presumed (Per Se) Limits

"Presumed" speed-limit violations are a little more complicated but give you far more flexibility in building your defense. In states that use this system for all or some of their roads—California and Texas, for example—it's legal to drive over the posted limit as long as you are driving at a safe speed.

For example, if you are driving 50 miles per hour in a 40-mile-per-hour presumed zone, you're presumed to be speeding. But if it's 6 a.m. on a clear, dry morning with no other cars on a wide, straight road, and you can convince the judge that you were driving safely given those conditions, you should be acquitted. That's because you present facts that "rebut the presumption" that by going over the limit you were driving at an unsafe speed. (There's more on this below.)

Basic Speeding Laws

The concept of the basic speed law is even trickier. Basic speed laws require drivers to always drive at a safe speed. So, you can be charged with speeding by violating a basic speed law, even if you were driving below the posted speed limit. The ticketing officer must simply decide that you were going faster than was reasonably safe, taking into account the driving conditions at the time.

For example, if you're driving 40 miles per hour in a 45-mile-per-hour zone, but the road is icy and there's heavy fog, a cop could sensibly conclude that by driving too fast for road conditions you are in violation of the basic speed law. This type of ticket is mostly handed out after an accident.

Should You Fight Your Speeding Ticket?

For some people, it's easier to just pay a speeding ticket and move on. In most states, you can admit a traffic violation and pay the fine through the mail or internet without even going to court.

But other people might want to avoid having to pay the fine or insurance rate increases that often come with traffic tickets. For these people, it might be worth the time and effort it takes to fight the speeding ticket in traffic court. After all, if you beat a speeding ticket in court, you won't have to pay any fines or worry about the ticket affecting your driving record. (It's also a good idea to research whether traffic school might be an option.)

To get an idea of how likely you are to win a traffic court trial, you should talk to a traffic lawyer in your area about possible strategies.

Common Defenses for Each Type of Speeding Ticket

Speeding ticket defenses differ depending on the type of speed limit. On your ticket, it'll generally say what type of speed limit you're accused of violating. However, the officer will sometimes just write the number of the code section, like "Vehicle Code section 3451," which you can look up online.

Absolute Speed Limit Defenses

The most common defenses to absolute speed limit tickets involve attacking the accuracy of the officer's speed measurement. For example, you might be able to successfully argue:

  • the officer's radar or LIDAR reading wasn't reliable because the device wasn't properly calibrated
  • the officer mistook your car for another car, or
  • the officer paced your car incorrectly (attempted to drive the same speed) and therefore ended up with an inaccurate speed estimate.

Because these types of defenses are geared toward casting doubt on the officer's speed measurement or estimate, they can be used to defend against all three types of violations.

Presumed Limit Defenses

With "presumed" speed limits, the question is whether the driver was driving at an unsafe speed given the road and weather conditions at the time and place the violation allegedly occurred. If you're accused of violating a presumed limit, you generally have two possible defenses:

  • arguing you weren't exceeding the posted speed limit (just as you would if you were charged with violating an absolute speed law), or
  • claim that, even if you were exceeding the posted limit, you were driving safely given the specific road, weather, and traffic conditions at the time.

Occasionally an officer will incorrectly measure your speed. But even when that happens, it can be hard to convince a judge to accept your version of the story. So, for presumed violations, it's often more effective to rely primarily on the argument that you may have been driving slightly over the posted speed limit, but it was safe to do so considering all the highway conditions at the time.

For example, if you know you were driving 33 to 35 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone, you should concentrate your defense on showing that your speed was safe because of factors like sunny skies, no traffic, and perfect visibility.

Basic Speed Law Defenses

Because basic speed laws focus on driving a safe speed, as with presumed limits, the question comes down to whether the driver was going at a speed that was reasonably safe in relation to the conditions that existed at the time.

For example, driving exactly at the 65‑mile-per-hour posted limit on the freeway would be really dumb amidst slower and heavy traffic, in a dense fog, or in a driving rainstorm or blizzard. In commonsense terms, such unsafe driving is unlawful, regardless of the posted speed limit. Police most often rely on the basic speed law after an accident. The reasoning is that you were driving too fast, no matter how slow you were driving, because you were in an accident.

The difference between fighting a basic speed law ticket and a speeding ticket for going over a presumed limit is that the government has the burden of proving you were driving unsafely. With presumed limits, it's flipped: Once the government shows you were driving faster than the presumed limit, it's up to you to prove your speed was nevertheless safe. In other words, the officer must testify that given the road, weather, or traffic conditions, your speed was unsafe.

You Need an Attorney for Cases Involving Accidents

It never hurts to talk to an attorney about your case. But if you were involved in an accident, you definitely should consult with an attorney because doing anything on your own. In addition to the penalties for a speeding violation, you might also be facing a lawsuit. Getting an attorney's assistance in this situation is a good idea.

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