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The traffic ticket process

How you navigate the traffic ticket process can make the difference between a dismissal and a mark on your driving record. Knowing how to handle a traffic stop, when to challenge your ticket, and how to contest it in court will greatly increase the odds you’ll beat a ticket.

What to do when you're pulled over

If you’re stopped by the police, the most important thing is to stay calm. How you handle a traffic stop has a big effect on the outcome.

Here are some key things to focus on:

  • Pull over quickly and safely. Signal that you're pulling over, then move as far to the right of the road as you can. Stop quickly, but not abruptly.

  • Don't give an officer reason for suspicion. The officer is watching your movements from the moment you pull over. Avoid suspicious or sudden movements. Roll your window down all the way, turn on the dome light if you're driving at night, and keep your hands visible.

  • Provide legally required information. The law requires you to provide your name, license, registration, and insurance information during a traffic stop. You don't have to offer any more information than that. Just remember to remain cooperative and polite.

  • Don't be afraid to use your right to remain silent. While you have the right to remain silent, many people don’t take advantage of that right when they're actually confronted by an officer. You don't have to answer any questions beyond basic identifying information.

  • Don't feel obligated to consent to a search. You aren’t required to say yes if the officer asks if they can "take a look" inside your car. To search without your permission, the officer must have reasonable grounds to believe that criminal activity is taking or has taken place.

  • Remember you have the right to refuse sobriety tests. Most lawyers, like Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Mace J. Yampolsky, recommend that you "do not agree to any roadside tests" if the officer suspects you of driving under the influence.

  • Request a lawyer immediately if you're arrested. You don't have the right to an attorney during a temporary traffic stop. But if you're arrested, you can ask for an attorney.

Contesting vs. paying a traffic ticket

The next step in the traffic ticket process is deciding whether you should pay traffic ticket fines or contest the charge.

Pros of paying your ticket

  • Quick resolution to your case without spending time in court or preparing for it
  • No money spent on attorney's fees
  • Possible option to attend traffic school and keep your record clear

Cons of paying your ticket

  • Expensive fines
  • Court costs of $100 to $300 whether you go to court or not (depending on your location)
  • Points on your driver's license, or possible loss of your license
  • Payment is an admission of guilt, so you can't contest the ticket later
  • Higher auto insurance premiums in the future

Pros of contesting your ticket

  • Cancellation of the fine if you win your case
  • Charges can be expunged from your record without having to attend traffic school
  • The case may be resolved in your favor if the issuing officer doesn't appear in court.
  • Keep your driving privileges if you win and your license was at stake

Cons of contesting your ticket

  • Hours spent in court and preparing your case
  • An attorney costs money, and while they help, they don't guarantee a win either.

Before contesting a traffic ticket

Before you decide to contest your traffic ticket, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What's at stake? The more you have at stake, the more reason you have to contest the ticket. For example, is a license suspension possible? Do you need a clean driving record for your job? Can you afford more expensive insurance premiums? Will you lose insurance coverage altogether?

  • Can you pay for an attorney? You don't need an attorney to contest a traffic ticket, but having one can help. Lawyers know the technicalities and procedures of traffic court and can guide you through the traffic ticket process. Traffic ticket attorney Jeffrey Ryan Hall estimates it will cost $250 to $1,500 for basic traffic violations.

  • Do you have a legal basis for contesting the ticket? Going to court is a time-consuming and potentially expensive process. If your chances of winning are small, it may not be worth the effort. A lawyer can help you determine the odds of your case.

How to contest a traffic ticket in court

You'll find a date on your ticket. This is the date by which you’ll need to either pay the fine or appear in court. If you choose to contest your ticket instead of paying it, you may need to contact the clerk of court to understand how to make a court appearance.

On the date of your trial, you'll arrive at the courthouse and wait for your case to be called. Your attorney will be with you (if you have one), as well as any witnesses you've subpoenaed. A prosecutor will represent the state, and they’ll bring the police officer who issued the ticket as a witness.

You can contest the ticket on the following grounds:

  • Dispute the officer's view of what happened. For example, if the police officer accused you of making an unsafe left turn, you could argue that your turn was safe given the circumstances. Some states, such as California, may allow you to argue that slightly exceeding the posted speed limit was safe at the time.

  • Prove a mistake of fact. You may also be able to win if your ticket was the result of an honest mistake. For example, overgrown tree branches might have hid a stop sign. In that case, you could offer photographs as evidence.

  • Dispute the officer's observations. For example, if you receive a ticket for failing to stop at a crosswalk, and you actually stopped at the crosswalk, you could argue that the officer didn't see what happened. Witnesses can help with this defense.

  • Argue your actions were necessary to prevent harm. Say you were in the right-hand lane on the interstate when a car entered the highway on the right. To avoid hitting the entering vehicle, you increased your speed to safely pass a car on your left—an example of a harm-avoidance defense.

Depending on the severity, a traffic ticket might not be anything more than a financial reminder of the traffic violation. However, when driving privileges and your license are at stake, understanding traffic citations and traffic court operations can help you navigate the traffic ticket process.

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