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.

Updated 10/25/2022

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 have.

In this article, we discuss factors that are relevant in deciding whether to fight a ticket, including ways to evaluate whether you have any good defenses to present in traffic court.

Consequences of a Traffic Ticket

Before deciding whether to fight a ticket, it might be helpful to consider the consequences of admitting a traffic violation conviction.

Pleading Guilty to a Traffic Violation

When you plead guilty to a traffic violation, the court will enter a conviction. A traffic conviction could lead to:

In some states, a traffic ticket can also lead to jail time. But even in these states, serving time in jail for a minor traffic violation isn't common.

Knowing the possible consequences of a conviction can help inform your decision about how to handle your ticket. For example, if you're trying to avoid points and rising insurance costs, traffic school can be a good option. And, if you aren't eligible for traffic school and another conviction will lead to license suspension, fighting the ticket might be the way to go. In other situations, it might be better to just pay up and move on with your life.

Fine Reductions and Providing Explanation While Pleading Guilty to a Traffic Offense

Generally, traffic court judges have the power to lower fine amounts. If you plead guilty to a traffic offense, it usually doesn't hurt to request a fine reduction, especially if you are going through financial hardships and can explain them to the judge.

In some situations, a judge might be more apt to lower a fine or be more lenient with penalties if you provide a reasonable explanation for why you violated the traffic law. However, this is definitely an area where you want to be careful. You don't want to found like you're making excuses or trying to skirt responsibility.

When It's Not Worth Fighting a Ticket

For many drivers, it just isn't worth the time and energy it takes to fight a ticket. Regardless of whether you have viable defenses, fighting a traffic ticket requires you to either go to court several times or hire a traffic attorney to go to court on your behalf.

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 some time to complete but keeps your driving record clean.

Whatever you decide, it's a good idea to first consider all your options. If money is an issue, look into the alternatives—such as payment plans—that might be available.

Study the Traffic Law You Allegedly Violated

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. Your traffic ticket should specify what code section you're accused of violating. For example, your ticket might say you made an illegal U-turn in violation of "Vehicle Code section 22103." Whatever the code section is, look it up with a quick internet search.

By looking up the law, you can see how the violation is defined. This definition tells you specifically what the government must prove—called the "elements"—to get a conviction in traffic court.

For example, in most states, the U-turn law reads something 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.

So, establishing a violation of this law requires the government to prove the following parts:

  • you were driving in a residential district
  • you drove your vehicle in a 180-degree turn—a U-turn
  • another vehicle was approaching within 200 feet or less, in front of or behind you, and
  • there was no traffic control signal at the intersection controlling the vehicle approaching you.

    If you can show that your conduct didn't violate even one element of the law, you are home free. For example, if the area where you were ticketed was not a residential district, the judge should find you not guilty.

    Consider All Viable Defenses for Your Traffic Ticket

    In most cases, you won't have a technical defense based on the elements of the offense. Traffic officers are generally pretty good at identifying the correct code section corresponding to the alleged violation. But you may still have a viable defense to present in traffic court.

    Some defenses have a good chance of success. However, there are also some defenses that drivers often try but almost never succeed. So, it's important to know which defenses work and which typically don't work in traffic court.

    Traffic Ticket Defenses that Might Succeed

    The best strategies for fighting a traffic ticket depend heavily on the specific circumstances. For example, defenses to speeding tickets often involve challenging the accuracy of the officer's speed measurement. And with stop sign and red light tickets (assuming it's not a red light camera ticket), showing that the officer didn't have a good vantage point to accurately assess the situation can be a successful defense.

    Traffic Ticket Defenses that Rarely Win

    Drivers frequently come into traffic court with excuses that don't amount to legal defenses. For example, a driver might say something like, "I was in a hurry to get to work and didn't realize how fast I was going." Or, a driver might tell the judge, "I would have stopped but I didn't see the stop sign." These types of explanations—if compelling—might convince a judge to reduce a fine but almost never result in the judge dismissing a ticket.

    It's also common for drivers to simply dispute the officer's version of events without providing any reasons or support. When a case comes down to the driver's word against the officer's word, the driver typically loses.

    When the Officer Doesn't Show Up in Traffic Court

    No matter what your defense is, you normally win if the officer fails to show up on the day of the trial. 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.

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