Written by attorney Michael Kielsky

Traffic Court Process

When you receive a traffic ticket, you generally have the right to fight it in traffic court. Many people find it easier to just pay the ticket and get on with their lives, but it can be worth fighting, and, in almost all cases, you cannot be penalized for asking for your day in court. For example, if the officer who issued your ticket doesn't show up, you case will usually be dismissed - you win. Also, court may be your only chance of either winning or getting a reduced penalty, so prepare a good case.

Preparing for Traffic Court

In most jurisdictions, you have the right to a speedy trial, even for traffic violations. Even so, your court date will likely be several weeks away, so you should have plenty of time to prepare your case. You also have the right to request more time to prepare, called a continuance. In most courts, your request for a continuance must be in writing, and state good cause as to why the continuance should be granted. Start by reading the actual vehicle code section you have been charged with violating. Make sure you're reading the "annotated code," which also provides relevant case law, if available. READ THE DEFINITIONS which are usually at the beginning of the titles or chapters of the code containing the violation you are challenging. Note anything you think might help your defense. Read the rules of court that apply in your jurisdiction, including the definitions, and note anything that you may be able to use to your advantage. Do your own discovery. In most jurisdictions, you are allowed to know the evidence against you and get the records about your case. In most cases you can submit a request for discovery to the prosecuting attorney. Some states make it mandatory that the prosecution provide you the information if you request it, others do not. A motion for discovery is similar, but you file that with the court, which will decide if you should get the information. You may need to make a motion for discovery if the prosecution ignores your request for discovery. Make sure you have read and are familiar with the applicable rules.

Information that may help, depending on the charges:

Information on the radar unit used and the tuning fork used for calibrating the unit, to see if they were functioning correctly: - Repair records - Calibration records - Manufacturers manual and specification on the radar unit - Certificate of accuracy for the tuning fork

Police Officer records, to see if the citing officer was qualified to operate the radar unit or to look for other factors that could help your case: - Arrest record for the day of your offense plus the previous three months, which can potentially show a pattern that could be useful to your defense - Daily log for the day of your offense - Radar training record - Copies of both sides of your original citation - Any other written or recorded statements or diagrams, including witness statements, which can give you an idea of the areas to focus your defense

You'll want to look for discrepancies or weak areas in the information. You may also be able to find cause to get the ticket dismissed. Don't expect to be able to use a misspelled name for dismissal, but more serious issues could qualify, depending on the jurisdiction: - Misidentifying your car or the site of the violation - Lack of a signature from the ticketing officer - Failure to note the date of the offense - Incorrectly identifying the defendant (that's you)

You may want to plan to let the officer testify to the incorrect information and then point out the errors. If your jurisdiction prohibits or does not provide for pre-trial discovery, you may still obtain much of the same information via public records requests to the involved public agencies. You must act quickly so as to improve the chances that you will receive the information in time for the hearing, as in jurisdictions that do not provide for pre-trial discovery, that you don't yet have responses to your public records request may not be good cause to continue your trial. Even if your jurisdiction does provide for pre-trial discovery, public records requests are still a good way to get more information. Again, timing will be a critical factor. Plan to look professional. If possible, visit the courtroom you are scheduled to appear in to see what is appropriate for that courtroom. At the very least, avoid loud, flashy or overly casual clothes. Business casual is the minimum, and dressing as if you are going to a religious service or a funeral is usually a safe choice. Plan to be calm and polite. No matter how irritated you might be by the ticket or the officer, do not go into court with an attitude. If you're a hothead in the courtroom, it's much easier for the judge to believe you were a hothead out on the road. You'll also want to appear confident without being cocky. In most court systems, you will also enter your plea prior to your court date. Often you can do this by mail, telephone, or in person at the court clerk's window. Make sure you do not miss any deadlines, and you understand what the deadlines are. Again, read the rules, and if you are unsure, ask the clerk of the court, or consult with an attorney.

What Happens in Traffic Court

The traffic court process is similar to a standard trial, complete with opening statements, witnesses, and cross-examinations. The applicable rules will describe the process and procedure, make sure you have reviewed them. In some jurisdiction, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt all the elements in the specific vehicle code you have been accused of violating. In other jurisdictions, the proof must be merely a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not). Attend some traffic hearings in the court that will hear your case, to get familiar with the process and the players. In most cases, you'll have a bench trial, with only a judge, not a jury trial. Some states do allow you to request a jury trial. If you want a lawyer, you must hire your own, but often, you shouldn't need one for simple cases like a speeding ticket. The prosecution may include a prosecutor, but may also be only the ticketing officer. After the bailiff calls your case, you and the prosecution should respond that you are ready and take your places at the appropriate tables. Then the case will proceed largely as follows: Opening statements: If permitted by the rules, both sides have the right to make brief opening statements, essentially outlining how you intend to make your case. Many prosecutors waive this right in the interests of a quick trial. When opening statements are made, the prosecution goes first. Prosecution testifies: The prosecutor or officer presents any relevant evidence and the officer explains their version of events and why you are guilty. You are allowed to object during the testimony, but don't abuse this privilege. Potential objections include: - Hearsay: This means the officer is testifying to something he or she only knows about from second-hand knowledge, not direct observation. It's something someone else saw or heard.

  • Facts not in evidence: The witness is testifying to something that has not been established by the introduced evidence.

  • Foundation: The officer has not provided a legal basis for the testimony. For example, in order to use a diagram against you, there needs to be a reason to believe it is an accurate representation of the scene when you were stopped.

Remember the rules. In some jurisdictions, hearsay is permitted, and the rules of evidence don't apply. Make sure you understand the applicable rules. You also want to note if the testimony addresses all the elements of the specific vehicle code you have been accused of violating. If one or more elements are missed, you can argue that the prosecution has not made its case. Once the officer is finished testifying, you may cross-examine. Make your questions short and specific. Your goal is to see if the officer will contradict earlier testimony or admit to not remembering key details. Remember, the officer is a trained and practiced witness, and all that implies. You testify: You are not technically required to testify, but it's usually in your best interest to do so. Tell your story in as much detail as possible, making sure to explain exactly why you did not do what you were accused of. Try to tailor your statements to the officer's statements. You may also introduce your own evidence and bring in your own witnesses, like your passengers the day you were ticketed. The prosecution may cross-examine you and your witnesses. Closing arguments: Both sides sum up their arguments. The prosecution goes first and may also be allowed to make a response to your closing. Verdict: Once all testimony is complete the judge with either tell you the verdict right away or take the case under advisement. This means the judge will think about it and you'll receive notification by mail. Sentencing: If the verdict is guilty (or responsible), the judge will usually announce a fine right then. Some states allow you to request a suspended or reduced fine for a good reason, such as a previously spotless driving record. You will then have to pay your fine or make arrangements to pay over time. At first glance, this traffic court process may seem complicated, but it's really not so hard to successfully fight many traffic tickets. However, traffic laws vary by state, so if you find the code confusing, it's worth at least talking to a traffic attorney in your state for advice.

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