Breaking the traffic laws is a crime and most states treat traffic violations that way. However, contesting your traffic ticket in traffic court doesn't have to be overwhelming, if you know what to expect.
When you contest a traffic ticket, the first time you appear in court is called an arraignment, first appearance or notice hearing. This is your chance to plead guilty and pay your fine, or plead not guilty and set up a trial date. In some states, there's a more streamlined process for nonserious traffic violations, such as speeding tickets, running red lights or failing to stop at stop signs. An arraignment or the presence of a prosecutor may not be needed.
It's important to go to your arraignment at the time scheduled on the ticket. Otherwise, it could end up costing you more in the long run and the judge might issue a bench warrant against you. A bench warrant can lead to an arrest and time in jail.
You should be prepared to post bail at the arraignment, usually not more than the amount of the ticket. Some courts allow you be released on recognizance, which means you promise to show up at trial and bail isn't needed.
It's important not to waive your right to a fair and speedy trial. Your trial must occur within the time the law allows or the charge against you must be dismissed.
If the ticket is invalid on its face - such as with mistaken identity or it lists no charge - you can try asking the judge to dismiss the case at the arraignment. This should be done respectfully and quickly, so as not to rile the judge.
Discovery is the legal term for uncovering the details of the case against you. With traffic tickets, the discovery process is less formal than in other courtroom trials. However, there are still some rules you have to follow.
You can send the prosecutor a request for production or discovery request. This is a written request to get a copy of evidence the prosecutor will use at trial. Some examples include:
- A copy of the police officer's notes, including both sides of the ticket
- A list of witnesses, their phone numbers and addresses
- A copy of any photos or videos taken at the scene
- A copy of any diagrams or maps to be used by the prosecutor at trial
- Any other written evidence to be used at trial
Your request should be served on the prosecutor in a manner that proves the prosecutor received it. Your traffic court clerk may be able to supply you with forms and details on how the request must be served. It's important to keep a copy of your request just in case you need to show it to the judge later. Request a copy of the evidence soon after you get your ticket so you receive the evidence before your trial date.
If the prosecutor doesn't respond within a certain number of days (which varies by state and court), you can ask the judge to dismiss the case. The traffic court clerk can tell you when to file a motion to dismiss and help you set up a hearing date for your motion.
The Trial Process
On the day of trial, the judge will call the list of cases scheduled for that day to see if you, the prosecutor and any witnesses are present. It's important to be on time and to be ready to present your case You can ask for the case against you to be dismissed if:
- The officer who gave you the ticket doesn't show up
- Your trial date has been delayed enough to violate the "fair and speedy trial rule" deadline
The prosecutor will present the case against you first. The officer who wrote the ticket will be sworn in and testify as to the facts as he or she remembers them. Don't interrupt the testimony, but listen carefully and take notes about questions you want to ask the officer or points you want to make in your testimony that contradict the officer.
After each prosecution witness is finished testifying, you'll have the opportunity to cross-examine the witness, asking questions and filling in any information that may be favorable to you. You'll want to:
- Make note of any discrepancies between what the officer says and what's written in his or her notes or on the ticket
- Limit yourself to short questions that are phrased to help your case
- Avoid being disrespectful or arguing with the witness
Next you get the opportunity to defend yourself. If you don't think the prosecutor proved all the elements of the traffic violation, you'll want to ask the judge to dismiss the case without presenting any evidence.
You can testify if you want, but you don't have to. If you call any other witnesses to testify, you should keep questions short and directly on the points you're trying to make in your defense.
The prosecutor will have the opportunity to cross examine your witnesses, including you. It's important to stay calm and not react to any provocation from the prosecutor. Take your time to understand the questions, and only answer the exact question that is asked. If you don't understand the question, don't hesitate to ask the prosecutor to clarify it for you. Don't guess (as to distances, for example) and don't be afraid to say you don't know the answer to a particular question.
After both sides have presented their cases, the judge will hear closing statements from each side, beginning with the prosecutor. You'll want to take notes on anything the prosecutor says that you disagree with.
Then it's your turn to:
- Point out the weaknesses in the prosecutor's case, including any contradicting evidence
- Point out any elements of the case the prosecutor failed to prove
- Emphasize any extenuating circumstances in your favor
Verdict and Sentencing
After the closing statements, the judge will announce his or her verdict and possibly comment on the reasoning behind the verdict.
If the judge finds you not guilty or dismisses the case, you've won and can leave without further ado.
If the judge finds you guilty, sentencing is next. You may be ordered to pay the amount of the fine written on the ticket and court costs. This is the time to bring up any personal issues that may have contributed to the traffic violation.
The court will probably expect you to pay your fine and court costs in full or may allow you to make arrangements for regular payments at the end of the court hearing.
If you want to appeal the judge's ruling, the traffic court clerk can give you the details on time deadlines and the appeal process.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What can I do if the prosecutor won't give me the evidence I requested?
- Do I have to give evidence against me to the prosecutor during the discovery process?
- Should I discuss my case with the prosecutor before the trial?