How to Fight a Traffic Ticket


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You have been pulled over but you are not sure why. You do not think you did anything wrong, but you get a ticket anyway. How do you fight it?

1. Be polite.

Whether you will get a ticket or not is often predicated on your behavior when you deal with the police officer. Be polite and cooperative when you get pulled over. Being belligerent or indignant may make you feel better but it might cost you more (sometimes a lot more). If you are polite and cooperative, the officer may just let you go with a warning or write your ticket for a less costly offense. Of course, all of the normal advice regarding dealing with the police still apply, such as keep your hands where the officer can see them as he approaches your window, do not make any sudden movements, do not joke or act suspiciously. Just be cool, relaxed, friendly, and helpful and you may not have to fight at all.

2. Avoid admitting anything and do not make excuses

When you are asked if you know why you were pulled over, just respond with a simple and polite, "No, sorry officer, I do not.” Keep in mind that honesty is the best policy especially when you prefer to get off with a warning, but that does not mean that you need to volunteer information unnecessarily, either. Remember, any admissions you make now, can be used against you later, and Miranda rights do not apply to traffic stops (i.e., no right to remain silent and no right to an attorney).

3. Follow one of the two theories regarding how you question the officer.

If a ticket seems inevitable, there are two theories of how to handle the officer at that point. You can go low-profile or you can politely imply that you will fight the ticket.

If you go with the low-profile approach, you simply ask the officer if you can handle the ticket by mail. The officer will immediately see you as a low probability to go to court and may take fewer notes. When you do challenge the ticket, the officer's sparse notes could make him want to skip the hearing. Even if he does come to the hearing, his sparse notes and memory could help you defeat the allegations as to why you were given the ticket.

Alternatively, you can imply that you will fight the ticket by asking a lot of questions. Officers usually hate having to take time out of their job to go to court to prosecute traffic tickets, so he may back down and give you a warning or he may realize he is in for a fight and skip the court hearing. The questions should center on things like how the offense was detected and verified. In the case of a speeding ticket, find out where they were positioned when they clocked you and what type of speed detecting device was used (i.e., radar, laser, etc.). Gather as many specifics as possible, including the serial number of the device, if possible, so you can research any technical issues the device may have, including maintenance schedules, calibration, etc. If the officer estimated your speed by following you, then find out what the location was when he began to follow you. Make sure you write down the patrol car's license plate number and his badge number. If you were cited for an offense other than speeding, make sure you understand exactly why you were pulled over, especially if you were cited for something not easily seen. The officer does not usually have to actually give you this information during a traffic stop, but if you are going to fight the ticket in court you can often request this information by requesting discovery.

4. Review your ticket for accuracy immediately upon receipt.

If there are inaccuracies that may hurt your case (i.e. if the officer notes on the ticket that you crossed two lanes of traffic when you only crossed one, or if he says traffic was heavy when in fact it was light), ask him immediately to correct them. Be very polite when requesting changes to your ticket. However if you find that the officer is not accommodating, do not argue but record the actual circumstances in writing at your earliest convenience.

On the other hand,if there are inaccuracies that may help your case or get the ticket dismissed, such as the wrong license plate number, the wrong street, etc., you do not want to call attention to them. Just note it and be ready to use it later.

5. Immediately begin to prepare your defense.

Write down every relevant fact you can think of as soon as you can, including traffic and road conditions, weather, time of day, and any extenuating circumstances.

If you have a camera (even one on your cell phone) take pictures, especially if your defense depends on something like an obscured speed limit sign or a huge pothole that you had to swerve to miss.

The best witness you could ever have is a dash-cam recorder. These devices are now commercially available and becoming increasingly popular, not only for fighting tickets, but also for recording the circumstances of auto accidents. If you have one, you will have an impartial recording of exactly what occurred and if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video can be priceless.

Go to the officer’s original position (whether stationary or moving) and check for any obstructions that might have caused them to have a poor view of the alleged offense or that might have caused the radar to malfunction. Remember, if you were in heavy traffic, it is possible that they shot someone else's vehicle with their speed detector, that they confused your car with someone else's as they got in traffic to stop you, etc.

Make a diagram of the road showing where the officer was positioned, which direction you were traveling, where you eventually stopped, and other important details. Leave no stone unturned, if possible. Think through the issue from every perspective you can and try to anticipate every possible argument you may face.

Most radar guns need to be recalibrated every 30-60 days, and due to ignorance, lack of funding, or laziness, they rarely are. One solid argument for your case is to prove that the measurement device is faulty. In some states the officer must check the calibration after issuing the ticket - usually by using two tuning forks held in front of the radar, which vibrate at the frequencies for 35 mph and 55 mph. Verify whether this was done and documented.

6. Read the fine print on the ticket

After you get home, actually read all the fine print on the ticket as there is usually useful information that may help you. For example, it may tell you how to contest your ticket, where to pay if you choose not to fight, or information on alternative programs to keep the ticket from negatively impacting your driving record or insurance rates, such as traffic school. Make sure you understand all of it, as it will give you instructions on how to proceed to the next step.

7. Decide whether to fight the ticket.

Let's face it, sometimes the officer is going to have you cold and there will be no legitimate way to challenge the ticket other than hoping the officer does not show up in court. Alternatively, if the fine is not that big, it may be worth asking yourself whether taking the time out of your life to fight the ticket is even worth it.

To do this, figure out exactly what offense you are charged with by looking at the ticket (sometimes it will be listed as a code, but the description of the offense that code identifies should be on the ticket or easy to locate on the internet). Find out what the cost of conviction will be, including the fine, jail or community service, mandatory diversion programs, and increased insurance rates. If it looks like you got less than the maximum remember that sometimes if you fight a ticket a higher penalty can be imposed if you lose. If it is still worth it to fight the ticket, proceed on, and if not, pay the fine and do whatever else you need to do to minimize the damage and move on as quickly as possible.

8. Decide whether you will need a lawyer.

Most jurisdictions will allow you to have an attorney to help you fight your traffic ticket. Of course, this expense should also figure into your analysis of whether you want to fight the ticket or not. In some cases, you will definitely need to consider an attorney, such as tickets for criminal offenses (i.e., offenses that could lead to probation or jail time like DUI, reckless driving, etc.). If your ticket stemmed from a car accident and you plan to sue the other driver you may want your attorney to come to court to observe the hearing on the ticket even if they will not be assisting you with that hearing.

Even though we generally recommend contacting an attorney to represent you in any legal concern, given the relative cost-benefit analysis related to most traffic tickets, it may simply be too expensive to hire an attorney at $200/hour to fight a ticket that is only $75. Of course, some possible exceptions include a ticket you received while far from home (like in a state you do not live in), or a ticket issued by photo enforcement (in many jurisdictions, if you are not in the court room there is no way to prove that you were the driver, and the case will be dismissed).

9. Request a hearing.

Your ticket may include a court date, or you may need to request a trial. Read the information on the ticket and follow the instructions to make sure you get your day in court. For most minor violations, your ticket will also give you the option to pay the fine. In almost all jurisdictions, paying the fine is an admission of guilt, so do not remit payment if you intend to fight the ticket.

10. Discovery.

Well before your court date, find out if your jurisdiction allows for the request of discovery for your type of offense. Discovery is the process by which parties to a legal dispute can request certain information and documents from the other side and from certain third-parties. In some jurisdictions, you may need to specifically request from the court that you be allowed to engage in discovery while others may simply allow it as a matter of course and others may have no mechanism for it at all. Also, whether you are able to get information through discovery or not, you may be able to file a public records request for some of the relevant information you may need.

Some things you will want to specifically request include the officer’s copy of the ticket, maintenance and calibration records for any speed monitoring or breathalyzer devices that were used by the officer to charge you, and the officer’s training records and certifications. The exact nature of your case and your defense strategy will, of course, determine the exact information you want to ask for.

11. Negotiate.

In some jurisdictions and for some offenses, you may be able to speak with the prosecutor before your trial. This can be an opportunity to plead to a lower charge or get a reduction in points or fines rather than going to court. Prosecutors are usually busy people, and being able to get one more file off their desks is often incentive enough to agree to a better deal.

12. Consider strategically requesting a continuation of your hearing.

In most jurisdictions, the police officer who gave you the ticket must show up for the court hearing. If he or she fails to show, your case will be dismissed. Many times officers will schedule many court hearings on a certain day so that they can appear for all of them at once. If you request a continuation (a change of date) the officer may get confused or may have a scheduling conflict and fail to appear. You usually need to make the request for a continuance in writing a few days ahead of the scheduled hearing, and you normally need a good reason.

13. Plan your defense.

Once you have decided to go to court, make sure you know how you will argue your case. If there is a particularly egregious error on your ticket, you may be able to rest your defense on that, but minor discrepancies (such as the color of your car) probably will not be that helpful. If your defense is based upon extenuating circumstances, make sure they are sufficient to warrant a dismissal. The judge will not be particularly impressed by “I was running late to work,” for example, but may be more understanding if you were rushing to the hospital with your pregnant spouse. Make an outline of your points, and make sure your evidence is well-organized. Create multiple copies of any documents you intend to use as evidence so the judge and the officer can all look at the same document or picture at the same time.

14. Go to court looking clean and professional.

One of the biggest mistakes made by people going to court is to not dress for the occasion. Court is a serious matter, and you should dress appropriately. If you are a man, you should wear a suit and tie with dress shoes. If you are a woman you should wear either dress pants or a knee length or longer skirt, a conservative blouse, and a suit jacket. If you do not have those clothes, stop by a thrift store or Goodwill and buy them if you can. People who show up to court in shorts, jeans, tee shirts, micro-mini or skin tight skirts or dresses, etc. are usually not taken as seriously as those who dress as though they understand the solemness of the event.

If you have not yet had the opportunity to speak to the prosecutor, now is a good time to do so. Unless you are offered a satisfactory deal, plead “not guilty.” A plea of “no contest” or “guilty with explanation” will do you no good. Remember, just showing up to court may result in a dismissal if the police officer does not also show up.

If the officer does show up and you are concerned about losing, change your plea to “no contest.” In most cases you will only pay court costs and your original traffic fine with no additional points on your license and no traffic school necessary (unless you can trade traffic school for points on your license).

15. Know and rely on the facts.

Know the difference between facts and arguments. You want to present facts to support your arguments, and an argument with no supporting facts is just noise. If you are going to say the officer made a mistake, you have to explain how. For example, if you argument is that the officer miscalculated your speed, how do you know that? Do you have facts showing that his equipment malfunctioned? That you know precisely how fast you were going? Are those facts based on evidence? If so, you have a case. If, on the other hand, you just feel sure he must be wrong that is not an argument (or at least, not one that will win).

Also, avoid admitting guilt. Saying something like “I was only going a few miles over the limit,” is an admission of guilt and you have just given away your entire case. On the other hand, saying something like “I was traveling at a safe speed” is not an admission of guilt.

Be sure you understand the law related to your particular offense. Do not assume that you do: the law is very complex and ever changing. Do some research before you go to court. If you intend to fight your ticket, now is not the time to be lazy. As you move through your arguments, be sure to explain why the prosecution has failed to establish some element of their case against you. That is how legal cases are won, not through appeals to emotions.

16. Bring a pad and pen.

Write down everything you need to remember in court. Make notes about any agreements you might enter into with the prosecutor. Write down the judge's ruling. Many courtrooms do not record conversations for traffic proceedings where criminal penalties are not reasonable. There can be ambiguity in how the judge declares your guilt or innocence and any penalties you might face, so you will need to make sure that the final written judgment or decree is the same as what was said in court. If not, you have the obligation of bringing this to the court's attention and getting it corrected. Otherwise, you will be stuck with whatever the written order says.


17. Do what the court says.

Whether you win or lose, you are obligated to follow the judge's ruling. Sometimes the judge will give you opportunities to minimize the damage of an adverse ruling through various diversion programs or the paying of fines instead of other penalties. Only by following through with the court's rulings can you benefit from these options. Failing to do so may subject you to further penalties and fines.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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