Criminal Law

Fighting a Speeding Ticket

By John McCurley, Attorney
Basics of speed limit laws and fighting a speeding ticket in court.

All motorists dread being pulled over for speeding. Speedy tickets are expensive, and accumulating too many tickets can lead to license suspension. But most drivers will at some point have to deal with a speeding citation.

If you do get caught speeding, you’ll first need to decide whether to just pay the fine and move on or fight the ticket in court. (Some drivers also have the option of traffic school, which might or might not involve paying the fine.) And if you opt to fight your citation, you’ll have to choose between representing yourself and hiring a traffic attorney.

To inform your decisions, here’s some basic information about excessive speed laws and fighting a speeding ticket.

Types of Speed Limits

Many drivers don’t realize there are different types of speed limits. The available defenses depend on which type you’re accused of exceeding. Generally, excessive-speed laws fall into one of three categories:

  • “absolute”
  • “presumed,” “presumptive,” or “prima facie,” and
  • “basic.”

Absolute speed limits are the most straightforward: If you exceed the posted limit, you’ve violated the law. It’s not always that simple when police catch you breaking a presumed speed limit (also called a “presumptive” or “prima facie” limit). If you can show that—despite going faster than the presumptive or prima facie limit—you were driving a safe speed, you can beat the charge. Basic speed laws are like presumed limits in reverse: Even if you weren’t exceeding the posted speed limit, you can be ticketed if the speed you were driving was unsafe under the circumstances.

(Read more about the different types of excessive speed laws.)

Preparing for Trial

Trial preparation can often mean the difference between winning and losing. Depending on the circumstances, you might want to bring photos, videos, maps, diagrams, and witnesses to court. For instance, if you’re arguing that you were driving a safe speed, it’s a good idea to bring evidence showing what the conditions were like when you got the ticket—things like traffic and weather reports.

Generally, you also have access to some of the evidence in the government’s possession. The process for requesting and getting this evidence is called “discovery.” Discovery for a speeding ticket case might include things like officer notes and maintenance documents for radar and other speed-measuring equipment.

Who Has to Prove What?

At trial, the government has the burden of proving with admissible evidence that you committed the speeding violation; otherwise, the judge or jury is supposed to find you not guilty. Standards of proof vary, but most states require the government to prove speeding violations by a “preponderance of the evidence”—enough evidence to show more likely than not that you were speeding.

However, with a presumptive speed limit, it’s a little different. The government initially must prove that the driver exceeded the presumed limit. But if the government can do that, the burden then shifts to the motorist to show the speed was safe under the circumstances. Should the driver succeed at doing so, the judge or jury is supposed to acquit.

Defenses

The defenses that are available and the likelihood that a defense will succeed depend on lots of variables. For instance, arguing that you were driving a safe speed won’t help if you’re accused of breaking an absolute speed limit. But the same argument might get you off the hook for a presumptive limit citation. And an argument that convinces one judge to rule in your favor might not work on a different judge.

Attorneys who regularly handle traffic cases are typically in the best position to know what works and what doesn’t for a given set of circumstances.

(Read about Common Defenses for Fighting a Speeding Ticket.)

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If I do traffic school for a speeding ticket, will my insurance rates be affected?
  • What are my chances of beating a speeding ticket?
  • Does the amount a speeding fine depend on how fast I was going?
  • Can I get a citation for driving too slowly?
  • If I was going extremely fast when I got pulled over, will I have to go to jail?
  • What is a “VASCAR” speed estimate?

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