Pleading and Arraignment in Traffic Court

Your options on the first court date for a traffic ticket.

When you get cited for a traffic violation, somewhere on the ticket there's usually an "arraignment" date. The arraignment date is basically the first court date. Instead of a specific arraignment date, some jurisdictions just give you a date by which you either need to show up in traffic court or pay the ticket—in other words, it's more like a due date.

What Happens at a Traffic Court Arraignment?

A traffic court arraignment is the first, and sometimes the last, court date for a traffic ticket. The purpose of the arraignment is to inform the court what you want to do about your ticket. Generally, you can either admit the violation and pay the fine or tell the court you'd like to fight the ticket at a trial.

Can I Just Pay a Ticket Fine Without Going to Court?

Before going any further, it's worth noting that you can usually resolve your ticket without having to go to court by paying the fine online or by mail. When you pay a ticket this way, you're basically admitting the violation and will end up paying the standard fine (also sometimes called the "schedule fine"). A traffic conviction—which results from admitting the violation—might also result in the DMV assessing points to your driving record.

Many people—especially those who are very busy and have good financial resources—prefer this method of resolving tickets. Generally, paying the fine by mail or online is the quickest and easier way to deal with a traffic ticket.

How Should You Plead at a Traffic Court Arraignment?

Assuming you decide to deal with your ticket by coming to court in person, here are some of the most common options at the arraignment:

  • Admit the violation. If you admit a traffic violation in court, you normally tell the judge you want to plead guilty or no contest to the violation. In many jurisdictions, the judge is allowed to lower the fine. So, it typically doesn't hurt to ask for a fine reduction and provide an explanation. Often, judges lower fines even without a request from the driver.
  • Choose traffic school. Most jurisdictions have a traffic school option for eligible drivers. Depending on the state, choosing traffic school might or might not require the driver to admit the violation. To find out about traffic school, you might want to talk to the traffic court clerk.
  • Plead not guilty. Pleading not guilty at the arraignment is the equivalent of requesting a trial. When you plead not guilty, the judge will normally set a date in the future for the trial.

Every driver's situation is different. So, which option is best just depends on individual circumstances. For instance, for anyone who's extremely busy, pleading not guilty typically isn't appealing because it means having to come back to court at least one more time. (For drivers in this category who want to fight the ticket, hiring a traffic attorney might be a good idea.) And, although traffic school is normally a good option, drivers who have recently done traffic school normally won't be eligible.

Can I Fight a Traffic Ticket Without Going to Court?

In a few states, you have the option of presenting your defense in writing rather than personally appearing at a trial. Typically, you make your testimony in a "declaration," which is a written statement you type up and sign, swearing you are telling the truth. You might also be able to include witness declarations and other evidence like photographs and diagrams.

Is There a Way to Negotiate or Plea Bargain With a Traffic Ticket?

It is sometimes possible to plea bargain with traffic tickets. However, the process for traffic ticket plea bargaining differs depending on whether the jurisdiction has prosecuting attorneys in traffic courts.

If there is a prosecutor in traffic court, that's the person who'll be negotiating with. Otherwise, any plea bargaining that might be possible, would be accomplished by talking to the officer who cited you for the violation or the judge in open court.

Plea Bargaining With Prosecutors

There's nothing to prevent you from approaching the prosecutor at any time to see if he or she is willing to make a deal to avoid a trial. The idea behind any type of plea bargaining is almost always to compromise on a better deal than you would get if you were found guilty at trial.

It's seldom realistic to assume that you can get your case dismissed, though in some special circumstances, requesting dismissal might be reasonable.

Plea Bargaining Where There Is No Prosecutor in Traffic Court

In jurisdictions that don't have traffic court prosecutors, negotiations are sometimes possible with the citing officer. Basically, you might be able to convince the officer to agree to a deal that involves you pleading guilty to a less serious offense than the one you were cited for. For example, if you were cited for running a stop sign, you might be able to plea to a more generic offense for disobeying a road sign. With these types of plea bargains, you might be able to plead to an offense that carries lower fines or fewer points than the violation you were cited for.

Judges normally have the ultimate say on whether to accept a defendant's plea and what the sentence will be. So, as long as you keep it quick and concise, it probably doesn't hurt to make a reasonable request directly to the judge. For example, if you're going through financial hardship, requesting a fine reduction would typically be reasonable.

How Can I Get More Information About my Traffic Ticket?

The date by which you must pay the fine or appear in court should be printed on your ticket. But if you have any questions about your options for dealing with the ticket or something else isn't clear, contacting the traffic court directly is a good idea. Most courts have a website that provides all the necessary information or you can call the traffic court. Court phone systems can be frustrating, so going to court in person can be another good option.

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