Most of us do not spend much time in court. We’re good people, for the most part, and do what we can to keep on the right side of the law. But even the best of us can get caught in our cars, on the highway, doing something that a traffic officer will find worthy of a ticket. Speeding, using a cell phone while driving, failing to turn on that darn signal light, forgetting to buckle our seat belts before we start out onto the road, the list is nearly endless of possible ways to catch the attentive eye of a passing police officer and wind up in traffic court.
The legal court system, although fascinating to watch, can be very difficult to navigate for someone who has never participated. If you find yourself going to trial over a traffic ticket you have received there are several things you need to know. The first of which is that the reality of it is not like it is on television. Don’t expect to be able to stand up and ask the police officer anything you want, or make accusations against the police officer, or do whatever you’ve seen on Law and Order. Do, however, try the following.
First, ask if you qualify for an attorney. Although laws differ from state to state, most serious traffic offenses will make you eligible to be represented by an attorney. Depending on your income level, the attorney may be appointed to you for free, or you may have to pay for their services out of your own pocket. The benefit to having an attorney represent you is that they will know how to present your case to the judge. They “speak the language” of the courts and are familiar with proper procedure.
That being said, most of us with our speeding ticket in hand will have to fend for ourselves against the police officer and the District Attorney’s Office, both of whom will have gone through this before and be much more comfortable in this setting.
Remember you can also ask for a reduction of your charge from the District Attorney’s office or from the judge. Usually limited to one or two per year, the reduction of your charge could mean the difference between points on your license, or just paying a court fine. You will have to plead guilty to the lesser charge, but the benefits may be worth it.
But if you do go ahead with the trial, convinced of your innocence (or at least of your right to look innocent) there are some things you can do to help yourself look better in the eyes of the court.
Show up early, dressed professionally. Let the court know you find the proceeding important. Don’t show up in ripped jeans or with a t-shirt that has writing on it. You’re there to represent yourself. You’ll tell everyone everything they need to know if you arrive in a t-shirt that says “I understand, I just don’t care.”
Unless you’re looking to throw yourselves on the tender mercies of the court, don’t admit you’re guilty. Do you know that you weren’t doing as fast as you were written for? Then don’t say “I might have been doing five over the speed limit, but I wasn’t doing fifteen over.” Any speed over the speed limit is speeding, and thus you are guilty by your own admissions.
Refer to everyone as “sir” or “ma’am.” The officer is not “the cop,” “that guy,” or “the stupid blind pig.”
Question the police officer. You might be nervous about it, but stand up and question him or her on what they’ve testified to. Keep your questions relative to what you are accused of. Don’t ask him what he had for breakfast that day. Don’t ask him about his family. Do not ask if he ever received a traffic ticket because the court doesn’t care if the answer is yes or no. Do try asking the following:
Ask if the police officer was trained in traffic violations at their academy, and specifically in whatever violation you were written for. If you were written a ticket for failure to signal, ask if the officer received training in looking for signal lights in basic training. Chances are the answer is no. If your ticket was for speeding, ask how long the section on speeding violations lasted in the academy. Chances are they won’t know the answer. Although we all know police officers receive a state mandated minimum training in a lot of areas, anything you can do to minimize that training in the eyes of the court may help you.
Ask about any discrepancies on your ticket. Is your name misspelled? Ask why. Is the name of the road you were stopped on incorrect? Definitely ask why, and if the officer is sure of what road the alleged incident happened on.
Ask if there was anyone with the officer. Although the court is likely to accept the police officer’s testimony as gospel, the point you’re making here is that the officer was the only one to observe what they said they observed you doing. There is no corroborating witness. His or her word against yours.
A speeding ticket, although embarrassing and stressful, gives a variety of question options. Ask the officer if they are trained in speed estimates. Ask specifically what they visually estimated your speed at, and point out if it is different from what their radar or lidar unit said your speed was. Ask if they performed any tests on the radar unit before, and after, writing you for speeding. The radar unit, although reliable, has to be tested each day by a series of tests including tuning fork tests, internal calibration tests, and a test to make sure all readout lights are operational. If the officer can’t attest to performing these, points for you. Also, ask if there is any written record these tests were performed. If there isn’t, again its only the officer’s word. Also, ask the officer to tell the court what make or model of radar unit they were using. There are several different kinds, and if the officer can’t tell you which they were using, it may add a factor of doubt to their testimony.
Do NOT ask the officer if they have a ticket quota. I know the implication here is that your ticket was only written to fulfill a minimum number requirement. But, it won’t work. The answer will always be “no,” and the nice police officer is allowed to write as many tickets as they want to. Yours included.
Always remember to be polite. And a smile will work wonders. Be prepared with your testimony, and with the questions you are going to ask. Most of all, respect the judge. It is their courtroom, their little kingdom, you are entering. They will respect you for respecting them.