Getting a traffic ticket isn’t the end of the world. But dealing with a citation is a hassle, and if you’re ultimately found guilty of a moving violation, there can be long-lasting financial consequences.
Generally, the procedures for minor traffic offenses—which are usually classified as “infractions” or “civil offenses”—differ from those for more serious vehicle-related crimes. For example, a trial for speeding would look much different than one for driving under the influence of alcohol. Here you’ll find the basics on contesting—including deciding whether to contest—a minor traffic violation.
Deciding Whether to Fight a Ticket
If an officer cites you for a moving violation, you’ll first need to decide whether you want to go to court or just pay the ticket and move on.
(Some states also give drivers the option of fighting a ticket in writing. For instance, California has a procedure called “trial by written declaration.”)
In most states, you can avoid having to go to court for a moving violation by paying a citation within a certain period of time, usually 21 or 30 days. Typically, you can pay by mail, over the Internet, or in person at the courthouse.
Though paying a ticket without going to court is a quick and easy way of dealing with the situation, it has some drawbacks: You’ll be admitting guilt for the violation and paying the maximum fine.
If you go to court, on the other hand, you’ve got a chance of getting the judge to reduce your fine or beating the ticket. But the court option doesn’t appeal to many drivers because it means investing time and energy, and possibly missing work or school.
(If you want to but can’t go to court, hiring an attorney to handle your case is another option. Indeed, some lawyers specialize in traffic tickets. With an experienced attorney, you might have a better chance of beating the violation.)
If you decide to handle your ticket in court, you should check your citation for instructions on where and when to go. (Even if you decide not to fight your ticket, read your ticket and any other paperwork closely.) The first day in court is usually called an arraignment. At arraignment, drivers typically have two options:
- Admit to the traffic violation. You admit guilt by pleading guilty or “no contest” to the offense. Though you aren’t required to explain why you broke the law, many judges will give you a short amount of time to do so. (Whether providing an excuse while admitting your violation is a good idea depends on the circumstances of your case.)
- Plead “not guilty.” If you plead not guilty, the judge will typically set another court date for your trial.
Many judges will reduce the fine for people who plead guilty at arraignment. However, some states prohibit judges from giving the driver a break in this way. And even in states where judges are allowed to lower fines, they might not be able to for certain offenses.
Judges in some states can require drivers who plead not guilty to post bail. Judges often set the bail at the amount of the fine for the traffic violation. The purpose of bail is to ensure that the motorist comes back to court. If you win at trial, the court will refund your bail. However, if you lose trial, your bail will normally be forfeited and go toward paying your fine. And if you don’t show up for trial, you’ll typically forfeit your bail, and the judge might find you guilty in absentia (without you being present in court) or issue a warrant for your arrest.
In most cases, if you request a trial and you show up but the officer doesn’t, the judge will dismiss your ticket—meaning you win. Many motorists plead not guilty with the hope that the officer won’t come to trial. However, this strategy can be risky: Judges are usually less apt to lower a fine or allow traffic school on the day of trial than they would be at arraignment.
Free lawyers? In most criminal cases, you have the right to a state-appointed attorney if you can’t afford to hire your own lawyer. In traffic cases, however, free appointed counsel typically isn’t available. Your choices are normally to represent yourself or to hire a private attorney.
Prosecutors not always involved. In some states, prosecutors represent the government in traffic trials. In others, the government doesn’t have legal representation: The court subpoenas the officer that cited the driver, and it’s up to the officer to come to court and prove guilt.
Standard of proof. At trial, the government has the burden of proving that you committed the alleged traffic offense. The standard of proof varies by state; in some states—including California and Minnesota—the government must prove all the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. In other states, the government is held to a lesser standard. In New York, for instance, the standard of proof in traffic cases is “clear and convincing evidence.” And many states—Oregon and Indiana included—require the government to prove moving violations only by a “preponderance of the evidence.”
Presenting and challenging evidence. You have the right to challenge the government’s evidence and to present your own evidence at trial. Oftentimes, you also have access to some of the evidence in the government’s possession through a process called “discovery.” Discovery in a traffic case might include things like officer notes and maintenance documents for radar equipment. At trial, the government’s evidence will usually consist of the officer’s testimony, and, sometimes, physical evidence—for example, a red-light video. It can be difficult to discredit a video that shows you breaking the law, but cross-examining an officer, if done skillfully, can be an effect way to reveal weaknesses in the state’s case.
Though you’re not required to present any evidence, you have the option to do so. You can bring witnesses to court or testify yourself. You can also ask the court to consider photos or videos that support your position. A subpoena allows you to force a witness to come to court or obtain evidence that someone else has.
The verdict. At the end of your trial, the judge will either find you guilty or not guilty. A not-guilty verdict means you beat the ticket—for most purposes, it’s like you never got the citation in the first place. If, on the other hand, the court finds you guilty, the violation will go on your driving record and you’ll likely have to pay a fine. Depending on the circumstances, you might also face additional consequences such as license suspension.
Questions for an Attorney
- Do I have the right to a jury trial for my traffic violation?
- If I lose my traffic trial and I want to keep fighting, can I appeal to a higher court?
- Is traffic school an option after the court finds me guilty at trial?
- Can the judge suspend my license for a traffic violation?