Traffic Ticket? Decide Whether to Fight in Traffic Court or Pay Up

Evaluate your chances of fighting a traffic ticket before you go to traffic court.

There are two kinds of traffic tickets: Ones you can beat in traffic court and ones you can't. The problem is determining which kind you got. If it's your first ticket in ten years and you expect it will be another decade before you get another one, you may want to avoid this whole question, pay the fine, and move on. Or you may want to consider going to traffic school, which takes a day of your time but keeps you record clear. If you can't attend traffic school—or choose not to— you need to evaluate whether you have a winner or a loser, so you can develop the proper strategy to fight it in court.

(Read more about your options for dealing with a traffic citation.)

Study the Law You Are Charged Under

Believe it or not, cops sometimes don't know the exact wording of the law, and it is the exact wording of the law that is most important to you if you are going to fight your ticket. And many laws are often so convoluted that it's not uncommon to find, upon careful reading, that what you did was not, technically speaking, a violation of the exact words of the statute.

When trying to fight a ticket, ask yourself the question: "What are the elements (parts) of the offense I am charged with committing?"

For example, in most states, the law making U-turns illegal reads like this:

No person in a residential district shall make a U-turn when any other vehicle is approaching from either direction within 200 feet, except at an intersection when the approaching vehicle is controlled by an official traffic control device.

You should break this law down into its legal elements by drawing a line between each clause, like this:

No person in a residential district / shall make a U-turn / when any other vehicle is approaching from either direction within 200 feet / except at an intersection / when the approaching vehicle / is controlled / by an official traffic control device.

Focusing on each element of a law is often the key to unlocking an effective defense. That's because, to be found guilty of having made this illegal U-turn, the state must prove you violated each "element" or clause of the offense. In this case, the state would have to prove each of the following facts:

  1. You were driving in a residential district.
  2. You drove your vehicle in a 180-degree turn, or "U-turn."
  3. Another vehicle was approaching within 200 feet or less, in front of or behind you.
  4. An "official traffic control device" at an "intersection" was not controlling the vehicle approaching you.

If you can show that your conduct didn't violate even one element of a traffic law, you are home free. For example, if the area where you were ticketed was not a residential district, or the vehicle the officer claims was approaching was over 200 feet away, or you were at an intersection controlled by an "official traffic control device," you should quickly be found not guilty.

Will a judge really follow such a technical reading of the law? You bet. This type of hyper-technical, word-by-word reading of statutes is the key skill all lawyers and judges learn in law school. In fact, they know of no other approach. This makes sense when you realize that the American legal system is built on the concept that you are innocent unless the government can prove you violated a law that prohibits clearly defined conduct.

Consider Other Viable Defenses

Even if you can't challenge the law you are charged with violating, all is not lost. You should ask yourself some other questions that might open up a defense:

  • Was the officer's view of what occurred obstructed by other moving vehicles or stationary objects like trees, fences, or buildings? If so, this allows you to argue the officer could not have clearly seen the alleged offense and gives you an opening to sell your version of events to the judge.
  • Did the officer stop the right car? It is quite possible in heavy traffic for an officer to see a violation committed by one white minivan (a 1995 Plymouth Voyager, for example) and to stop another (an almost identical white 1994 Dodge Caravan) further down the road. Your ability to claim this happened goes way up if you can show that, because of a curve in the road, construction project, or just heavy traffic, the officer lost sight of the offending vehicle between the violation and pulling you over.
  • Were you charged with speeding when you were driving safely, even though you were driving over the speed limit? In about 20 states, the law says it's legal to drive slightly over the posted speed limit as long as you can prove conditions made it safe to do so. For more information, see Nolo's article Speeding Tickets: How to Defend Yourself.
  • Was there an actual, provable error in the officer's approach or methodology? In citing you for speeding, did the officer correctly pace your vehicle or properly use radar, laser, or VASCAR to establish your speed? (But realize that generalized statements about the possible inadequacies of radar or laser techniques almost never result in your beating a speeding ticket.)
  • Do any other legal defenses exist to the law you're charged with violating? For example, if you were charged with driving too slowly in the left lane of a multi-lane highway, in most states it is a legal defense that you were planning to turn left.

Read more tips and strategies to defending yourself in traffic court.

Defenses That Almost Never Fly

The defenses listed here don't usually work, so if this is all you've got, it's probably a waste of time to go to court (unless you're counting on the officer's not showing up, and you get lucky).

  • 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). For example, if you tell the judge that you honestly thought it was okay to just slow down instead stopping at a blinking red light, his reply may be, "Sorry, ignorance of a law is no excuse."
  • You argue your violation didn't harm anybody. Sorry, you are still legally required to stop at a red light even if it's 3:00 a.m. and no other vehicle is moving within two miles. The fact that your illegal conduct was not dangerous is not a winning defense, except when you are cited for speeding in states where it can be legal to exceed the posted speed.
  • You complain, "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. It is almost impossible to win this one, since the law makes it plain that it does you no good to simply show that other drivers also violated the law and that the officer singled you out. 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. If you had just won a libel case against him or had complained against him for an earlier incident, you might have a chance -- otherwise, forget it.
  • You tell a sympathetic story. The fact that your child, your mother, or your parakeet was ill will not get you off. At best, the judge may reduce your fine a little (especially if you throw in the fact that you have a low income and nine hungry mouths to feed).
  • You say, "The officer's lying." This is highly unlikely to result in your being found not guilty, at least without presenting any specifics to back up your contention.

If the Officer Doesn't Show Up to Traffic Court

No matter what your defense is, you normally win if the officer fails to show up. Don't underestimate the possibility of this happening. For all sorts of reasons, including the officer being on vacation, having a scheduling conflict, having been transferred, or not being notified of the court date, cops often miss court hearings.

Here are a few tips to help you decide if the arresting officer is likely to be a no-show.

  • The more serious the violation, the more likely the officer will be there. If you and a dozen others are ticketed at "quota time" for going 5 mph over the speed limit, the officer is less likely to show up than if you were cited for going 60 mph in a school zone.
  • The farther the officer is located from the courthouse, the less likely he is to appear. In large counties, this can really work to your advantage.
  • An officer isn't as likely to appear during his vacation. There are usually more no-shows during the summer.

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