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What to expect in traffic court

Key things to know before you show up for your court date

When you're preparing for traffic court, it's important to understand what's ahead. Preparing for the next steps and familiarizing yourself with the system will give you a better chance of getting a favorable outcome.

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Setting your trial date

Your ticket will often have a court date included on it. This saves you from having to schedule one yourself, but the date may not always be convenient. If that's the case, you can generally request a continuance, or postponement, which pushes your appearance to a new date.

Some states will inform you of an assigned court date by mail if you fail to pay your fine. If you choose not to pay the fine for a traffic violation, remember that court is the next step.

Finally, some states make you schedule the court date yourself. If this is the case, do so as soon as possible so you don't fall outside the time limit for taking your case to court.

Preparing for court

Many people get nervous or flustered before going to traffic court. Confidence and a calm, collected demeanor will serve you well as you prepare for your court date.

You should gather as much evidence as possible and arrive with all your paperwork in hand. Some things you might want to gather include:

  • The officer's notes
  • Witness statements
  • Diagrams
  • Maps
  • Photos

Dress professionally for your court date. You don't want to show up in jeans and a T-shirt. Put on a suit, dress, or other business attire so you look collected and organized.

Going to court

When you arrive for traffic court, you'll typically find several other people awaiting their trials on the same day. Plan to arrive early anyways. If you're late, your case could be dismissed. Enter the court when the bailiff calls your name, and don't ask questions unless you're addressed directly.

It's often helpful to have a traffic court lawyer with you on your court date. Your lawyer can also brief you on the specifics of how traffic court is handled in your state.

In most cases, traffic violations are a judge trial. This means you will appear before a judge along with the officer who wrote your ticket. The judge will hear the evidence and deliver a verdict.

Jury trials are less common for traffic violations. You'll usually only face a jury trial if your violation includes a misdemeanor or felony offense.

How to plea in traffic court

If you plan to plead guilty, you can avoid court and close your case quicker by simply paying your fine.

You can also plead nolo contendere. This means that you do not contest the charge. It is similar to a guilty plea, but can't be used against you in a lawsuit (for example, if you were in an accident and the other person sues you).

Finally, you can plead not guilty. This means you do not believe you committed the traffic offense and plan to argue your case in court.

Traffic court appearances

Judges typically see several trials in a single day when dealing with traffic violations. They want to conclude each case as quickly as possible, so you'll find that they waive many formalities, such as the opening statement.

You still have the right to go through each part of the formal process if you want to though. If you need to make an opening statement, don't let the push for a quick trial stop you. A traffic court lawyer can help you choose the best approach for your case.

If the police officer who gave you your ticket fails to show up on the day of the trial, the judge might dismiss your case entirely. This is the best outcome most defendants can hope for.

If the officer is present, they will make a presentation explaining the violation. Pay close attention. You can object to the officer's testimony if:

  • The officer relies heavily on notes or diagrams, indicating that they failed to provide a foundation for testimony and don't have adequate personal knowledge for the case
  • The officer uses evidence that you requested but did not receive
  • The officer gives information outside their knowledge

Once the officer finishes their testimony, you will have the chance to cross-examine them. You can use this opportunity to ask them questions that might compromise their argument. The prosecuting attorney can then follow up with a redirect examination. You might then give your own testimony, provide witness testimony, and present your argument a final time in closing statements.

Going to traffic court gives you an important opportunity to protect your rights, maintain a clean driving record, and fight back against an unfair ticket. However, hiring a traffic court lawyer gives you the best chance of winning your case.

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