You received an infraction and decided to contest the violation. But what happens now? Will the officer show up? Will you have a chance to tell the judge your side of the story? This guide is designed to answer many basic questions about what to expect at a contested hearing.
I mailed my infraction to the court, now what?
Once the court receives your request for a contested hearing, the court clerk will set a court date. The court will send you the notice of your court date in the mail. Generally, you will be given at least a week’s advance notice, but you still want to check your mailbox every day. Some courts are so busy that your hearing date may be set out several months after you were issued the infraction.
I received my date in the mail, but it doesn’t work for me, can I reschedule?
That will depend on the court. Some courts will allow you to call or show up at the court in advance and request a continuance of your case. The court will then set it for another date. However, do not expect the court to be willing to work around your schedule, the judge will expect you to work around the court’s rigid scheduling requirements. Other courts will not allow you to ask for a continuance in advance, and you must appear on your court date.
What happens if I don’t show up for my court date?
The infraction will be found committed, and you will have to pay the fine. If you do not pay the fine or set up a payment plan within thirty days, the court will send your infraction to collections. This may lead to a suspension of your license for unpaid fines and driving on a suspended license is a crime. A few courts will also issue a warrant for your arrest if you do not appear at your contested hearing, so make sure to check before you decide not to go.
I heard the officer wrote up a report, when do I get to see it?
The officer that stopped you gave you a citation, also called a ticket, but did not give you his narrative report. That report is generally written up later, either the same day or within a few days after the stop. The report is then sent to the court, where the judge will be able to read it. You will not automatically be sent a copy of the officer’s report. You must ask for it by making a demand for discovery. Many courts have paperwork that you can fill out to request the report, however remember that you will need to file the paperwork with the court and with the prosecutor’s office.
What will happen when I arrive for my court date?
When you appear, you will need to find your courtroom and have a seat. The judge will eventually appear in the courtroom and usually take roll to see who is present. Next, the judge will go over the requirements for the contested hearing, such as what the burden of proof is, if you are eligible for a deferral, and when you will be able to present your side of the story. Every judge will conduct the hearings a bit different, so make sure you listen to the instructions.
Burden of proof? What is that?
Infractions are civil matters, which means that the state or city has to prove you committed the infraction by a preponderance, which means more likely than not. Unlike movies and television, there is no requirement for the state or city to prove the infraction “beyond a reasonable doubt." That burden only applies to criminal cases; the burden for infractions is much lower.
Will there be a prosecutor present?
Maybe. Some courts have prosecutors present while at other courts the prosecutor chooses not to appear. If the prosecutor is present, you may talk with them, however you do not want to reveal all the facts in your case until you are called up in front of the judge. A prosecutor may choose to ask your questions if you make a statement and will argue to the judge against you. If there is no prosecutor, then you will just be making your arguments to the judge.
Will the officer who pulled me over be there?
In Washington State, the officer who pulled you over will only appear if you subpoena him or her. To subpoena the officer, you will first need to contact the court. Generally, each court will have paperwork that you will need to fill out to receive a subpoena. You must also file the paperwork with the prosecutor’s office and deliver the subpoena to the police station where the officer works. If you fail to do any of these steps, then the officer will not be required to appear.
If I subpoena the officer and he or she does not appear do I get my ticket dismissed?
Yes. However, if the officer does appear, he or she can be called to testify and may correct any problems with the citation or with his or her report. Sometimes having the officer appear is not always the best way to win your case.
My case is called by the judge, now what do I do?
When your case is called, go forward to the front of the room. If you have any preliminary motions, now is the time to make them. Preliminary motions are generally legal reasons why something should not be considered. If you have a factual reason why something should not be considered, wait until after you have given testimony. If you have no preliminary motions and there is no officer present, the judge will place you under oath and let you make a statement. This statement is your testimony, the time when you get to say what happened that day. You cannot testify about things that are unrelated to the case or what someone else said. For example, the fact that you read or heard from a friend that officers are just pulling people over to make money for the state will not be allowed.
If a prosecutor is present and asks me questions, do I have to answer?
If there is a prosecutor present, he or she may ask you questions. Again, this is not a criminal case, so you do not have a right to remain silent. Depending on your case, be prepared to answer questions such as, How fast were you going that day? What color was the light when you entered the intersection?
The officer is there, what do I say to him or her?
If the officer is present, the judge or prosecutor will call him or her to the stand to testify. If a prosecutor is present, he or she will ask questions of the officer to lay a foundation and to prove all elements of the cases. In other words, the prosecutor will ask the questions necessary to have the officer tell his or her side of the story in a way that will help prove you committed the infraction. Then you will have a chance to ask the officer questions. You might want to ask the officer about their training or experience, or about something that happened when you were pulled over, such as how much traffic was around you.
How and when will the judge decide? What do I do then?
The judge will consider all the evidence presented. That will include any testimony from you or the officer and usually the officer’s report. After considering all the evidence, the judge will make a ruling and find you committed the infraction or that you did not commit the infraction. Unlike movies and television where it can take days for a judge to reach a decision, the judge will usually make a decision in about a minute or two. Things tend to move very quickly at a contested hearing, and your entire hearing may only end up taking five minutes once your case is called. If you are found to have committed the infraction, you will need to see the clerk in the courtroom for paperwork about how pay the fine. If you are found not to have committed the infraction, then there will be no fine, however, you may still need to see the clerk for paperwork.
If I hire a lawyer, how does that help me?
First, a lawyer will go through and do an in-depth review of your case and the report written by the officer, looking for legal and technical issues. Based on the issues the lawyer finds, he or she will make a decision about whether subpoenaing the officer is beneficial for your case. Usually a lawyer will not require you to be present in court, which means the lawyer will appear at the court and handle everything. If there is a prosecutor at the court, a lawyer can also try and negotiate your case and try to reduce the infraction to a violation that will not be reported to your insurance company.