You see the dreaded red lights flashing in your rear view mirror. The police officer approaches your car, and before you can get a single word out he simply says “license and registration.” You sign next to the X, and a few weeks later, you get a notice in the mail saying you need to show up at a courthouse or pay a fine of several hundred dollars.
Let’s say that you feel the ticket was unfair. The cop says he caught you on radar going 85, but you know for a fact that you had the cruise control set at 75. He clearly meant to pull over that other silver Nissan Maxima and got you instead. Or maybe you’ve already done traffic school, and your insurance rates are going to take a major hike if you take another point on your record. You need to challenge this ticket. What do you do?
Pay attention to the copy of the ticket given to you at the time you are pulled over. It should have a date to appear. The court will send you a notice in the mail about when you need to appear in court to challenge the ticket. However, if that notice gets lost in the mail, you are out of luck if you fail to appear. The court (unfairly) assumes that if the notice is mailed, you have received it. A failure to appear will result in a civil assessment (penalty) of $325 in addition to the underlying fine for the traffic infraction.
Your initial appearance is called the arraignment. At this time, the court will explain your rights to you and ask for a plea of guilty or not guilty. It will vary by the county, but if you have not done traffic school in the past year, you will generally be allowed to plead guilty and pay the fine plus an additional assessment (usually $50-$70) to attend traffic school. This will keep a point off your record. Traffic school is generally an eight hour course and costs another $20-$50.
If you are ineligible for traffic school or just want to contest an undeserved ticket, you can plead not guilty at your arraignment and set your case for trial. However, if you represent yourself at this stage, you may be required to post bail, which will be for the amount of your fine. If you are represented by an attorney, you will not need to post bail, and it most cases it will not be necessary for you to go to court.
When you plead not guilty you will set your case for trial, usually four to six weeks in the future, although you have an absolute right to a trial within 45 days. The trial will usually consist of you and the officer who gave you the ticket telling the judge your story, similar to the format you’ve seen on “The People’s Court.” You have the right to present evidence such as photos, and to have witnesses testify in your defense. The officer who gave you the ticket, since he writes hundreds (or thousands) of tickets, will probably testify based upon his notes. The judge will decide if, based on the evidence testimony presented, it has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt if you committed the infraction.
If you are found guilty, the bail you previously posted will be forfeited, and a point (or two, if it is a more serious infraction such as reckless driving) will go on your record. If you are found not guilty, your bail will be returned by the court, usually via check within four to eight weeks.
There are many ways to win at trial! The easiest way is if the officer simply does not show up. This is fairly common. Sometimes the officer won’t recall any details of the ticket, and will admit this, and the ticket and fine will be dismissed. Even if the officer does show up and remembers giving you the ticket, it still must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed every element of the violation alleged. If radar was used to cite you for speeding, there are technical rules that must be followed to allow the use of radar. If the citation was at night or in heavy traffic, the officer must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that yours was the car that committed the violation. You have a right to cross examine the officer and challenge his powers of observation.
Of course, the best way to fight and beat your traffic ticket is to retain an experienced attorney. By having an attorney on your side, you will not need to miss work, you will not need to post bail of several hundred dollars, and you can be sure you are not hit with any failure to appear fines. Many cases can be negotiated down to a “non-moving” violation, which saves you traffic school and/or a point on your record.