Criminal Law

A Day in Traffic Court

By John McCurley, Attorney
What to expect when you go to traffic court for a moving violation ticket.

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You typically have several options for dealing with a traffic ticket. Usually, the quickest and easiest way to resolve a citation is to admit guilt and pay the citation online or by mail. This article, however, discusses what you can generally expect if you decide to handle your ticket by going to traffic court.

Arraignment: First Day in Traffic Court

Most citations have instruction on when and where to go for court. The first court date is usually called an “arraignment.” You should get to the courthouse early so you have enough time to figure out what courtroom you need to be in.

Once the courtroom opens and everyone is inside, a clerk or bailiff might explain the specifics of how things run in that courtroom. The judge then takes the bench and starts calling the cases from a list. The list is normally arranged by alphabetical order of last names. When the judge calls your case, you’ll typically have to approach a podium positioned in front of the judge and state your plea. Generally, you have two plea options:

Admitting Fault

If you’re going to admit guilt, why not save yourself the trouble of going to court? You can, after all, pay your ticket online or by mail. But in most states, traffic judges have the authority to reduce fines, and if you don't go to court, you can't get a reduction. In states that allow it, it’s common for judges to give drivers a break in this way.

While you’re waiting for your case to come up, pay attention to what the judge does in other cases. If the judge reduces the fines for several other people who plead guilty, there’s a good chance that you’ll get a reduction as well. If, on the other hand, the judge isn’t cutting anyone slack, you’ll probably receive similar treatment if you plead guilty.

Depending on your driving record and the state you live in, traffic school might be another option. Most states require drivers who want to do traffic school to first admit guilt for the violation and pay the citation fine. After the driver completes traffic school, the court dismisses or removes the violation from the driver’s record.

Pleading Not Guilty

Typically, pleading not guilty is the equivalent of requesting a traffic court trial. When you enter your plea, the judge sets a date for your trial and subpoenas the officer who gave you the ticket to come to court on that date.

However, even if you don’t actually want a trial, there’s at least one other reason for pleading not guilty: if the officer doesn’t show up for trial, it typically means you win your case. Many drivers request trials not because they want to fight their ticket, but because they’re hoping the officer won’t come to court.

If the officer does show up to court, and you don't want to do the trial, chances are you'll still have the option of changing you plea to not guilty. But most judges will be less apt to reduce your fine or allow you to do traffic school than they would have been had you plead guilty at arraignment.

Generally, judges can require you to post bail when you plead guilty at arraignment. Bail typically won’t be more than the fine amount for your ticket. The court will refund the bail if you win your trial. If you lose, the bail you paid will normally go toward payment of your fine.

Traffic Court Trials

When you show up for court on your trial date, the routine is similar to that of arraignment day. But usually, all the cases on the court’s calendar will be traffic trials. If there are any arraignments on calendar, the judge will normally get those out of the way first.

For each traffic trial, the judge calls the case, and the officer and defendant (or the defendant’s attorney) come forward. If the officer isn’t there, the judge ordinarily dismisses the ticket. When the officer and defendant are present, the trial will begin.

As far as trials go, traffic trials are fairly simple. But for someone with no legal training or trial experience, traffic trials can be challenging. Conducting a trial effectively, even a simple one, requires preparation, legal knowledge, and skill. If you have your mind set on taking your case to trial, it might be worth hiring, or at least talking to, a traffic attorney. (For a discussion on factors to consider before hiring a traffic lawyer, see Should I Hire a Traffic Attorney to Fight My Ticket?)

Most traffic trials follow the same basic progression. First, the officer testifies and presents any evidence relevant to the citation such as videos or radar readings. Then, the defendant has the opportunity to cross-examine the officer. When the officer finishes testifying, the defendant also has a chance to testify and present evidence. (The defendant, however, has the right to choose whether or not to testify.) Once both sides finish their presentations, the judge makes a decision, finding the driver guilty or not guilty. If it’s a guilty verdict, the judge will sentence the driver for the violation. For most tickets, the sentence is just a fine.

Questions for an Attorney

  • Am I eligible for traffic school?
  • How often do officers not show up for traffic trials?
  • If I lose at trial, is there a way to appeal the court’s decision?
  • Do I have the right to request a jury trial for a traffic ticket?

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