Your Day in Traffic Court
Part Two — Contesting a Ticket
At Edmunds.com we do not in any way condone breaking traffic laws. However, there are times we feel we have unfairly received a ticket because of extenuating circumstances or because of a speed trap on a lonely downhill stretch of road. These articles were written for the driver who feels unjustly accused and who wants to argue the case in traffic court.
On the day of my trial for a speeding ticket I arrived outside traffic court in West Los Angeles to find about 30 people milling around, waiting for the doors to open. At the other end of the corridor, the police officers who had issued the tickets had gathered. I noticed that these two groups didn't mingle at all.
When the doors finally opened (45 minutes late) we all filed into the courtroom. The police officers sat on one side of the room while the ticketed motorists sat on the other.
I had prepared for my day in court in several ways:
- I wore a coat and tie
- I had read several books about presenting cases in traffic court
- I had drawn a diagram of the area where the traffic stop occurred
- I had copies of the California Vehicle Codes relevant to my case
The only thing I was lacking was a compelling argument to prove that I wasn't speeding. I mean, I was speeding and there were no real technicalities I could exploit to contradict that. My strategy was to wait until the last possible moment, hoping the ticketing officer didn't show up, and then, if he did make an appearance, invoke California Vehicle Code 41501 stating my right to go to traffic school.
The judge finally appeared and told us that he would be reading off our names. If we were prepared to proceed to trial, we should respond by saying, "Ready." The judge sternly warned us that this was our last chance to opt for traffic school. If we went to trial and lost, there would be points on our license. If we took traffic school now our sins would be forgiven.
Surveying the room, the judge then said to one of his clerks, "You know, I saw a lot of officers downstairs. Let them know we're starting now." The clerk disappeared. This, and several other comments showed that the judge was trying to scare us into taking traffic school rather than tying up the court with a trial.
The judge then began reading our names. In several cases, the defendant answered, "Ready," and the police officers responded by saying, "The people are ready." The judge set these case files to one side for trial. But in over half of the cases there was no response from the police. In other cases the police responded by saying, "Officer doesn't remember," and the case was dismissed.
In one case, the judge got no response when he called the police officer's name. He told his clerk, "Check downstairs. I know I saw the officer down there." This case file was set to one side, and the defender slouched in his seat, muttering an obscenity. The people whose cases were dismissed usually said, "All right!" and left the courtroom with a spring in their step.
When my name was called I responded with a confident, "Ready!" The judge then called out the police officer's name. I held my breath. He called it again. No response. The judge glanced over the case and said, "People unable to proceed. Case dismissed. Watch your speed." I left the courtroom feeling a load was lifted, and joined the other celebrating ex-offenders in the corridor.
As I walked back to my car I reviewed the outcome:
- The charges were dropped and my $77 fine would be returned
- No points would be put on my license
- My insurance premiums would not go up
- I wouldn't have to spend the money or time on traffic school
All of these benefits were the result of taking the time to go to traffic court.
Several days later a friend of mine had a different experience in court. So far this year my friend has successfully challenged two tickets and lost two cases in traffic court. The two tickets he successfully challenged were for speeding based on radar and were given to him by California Highway Patrol; the two he lost were from city police departments for non-speeding moving violations. In this particular case he was ticketed for failure to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. He went to court in West Los Angeles and waited for the entire afternoon for the chance to argue his case.
My friend reported that the judge in his courtroom was like a flamboyant game show host. When he ruled in favor of the driver, he seemed to share in the excitement of the moment by boisterously proclaiming, "Looks like you won't be going to traffic school! And we'll even be mailing you your money back!" But when he ruled against the motorist he became sarcastic and abrupt.
The order of the events in the trials were:
- The officer described the circumstances under which he issued the ticket
- The judge asked the officer follow-up questions about the case
- The defendant told his or her side of the story
- The judge questioned the defendant and referred further questions to the officer
In some cases, the defendant was allowed to tell his story only to discover that the officer had shot a video of the traffic stop. These cases always went against the driver.
When my friend was stopped he had asked the police officer: "Are you saying that I blew off the stop sign completely?" The officer said, "No. You just rolled through it." But in court the cop told a different story.
The officer described the location where he was parked and stated that he had an unobstructed view of the intersection. He then told the judge that my friend had gone through the stop sign at 15 mph. The judge then asked, "What's the error factor in your speed estimation certification?" The officer said it was "plus or minus 3 mph."
When it came time to issue a ruling, this judge used this fact against my friend. He said, "Assume for a minute that the officer had been having a bad day. That still means you were going at least 9 mph. Suppose he was having a really, really bad day. That still means you were going 6 miles an hour."
My friend felt that he had learned an important lesson from this trip to court. Since the police officer presents his side of the story first, you should try to anticipate what he will say and create your strategy accordingly. Clearly, this officer had presented what he thought would be an ironclad story to refute someone trying to say that they didn't "roll" through the intersection. If he had said that my friend had gone through the intersection at 5 mph without stopping, that 3 mph variation in his speed estimation certification would be cutting it pretty close.
This brought up another important point. Walter Meyer, a traffic school instructor and freelance writer who lives in San Diego, Calif., said that if the case hinges on your word versus the police officer, the judge will usually rule in favor of the officer. This is because police officers are perceived as experts in traffic rules. Furthermore, Meyer said, "The judge knows that he can walk out the door of the courthouse and find a dozen people breaking the traffic laws." This leads to an attitude of "guilty until proven innocent" at least in traffic court.
This was echoed by my friend who had some advice for anyone going to try his or her case in traffic court: "Make sure your case is based on concrete evidence and don't rely strictly on what the officer said at the time of the traffic stop. Don't just go in there and say, 'I didn't do it.'"
For example, one woman who successfully challenged her ticket convinced the judge that the stop sign she supposedly ran was resting on a concrete pylon that was too low to see. She brought photos to court to show the judge and her case was dismissed.
Although my case was dismissed, I still had one important step. Experts advise that you contact the DMV and get a copy of your driving record to make sure your dismissed case hasn't inadvertently wound up on your license. While the clerical error is the court's fault, you could be the one spending a night in jail.
As my friend and I discussed our experiences we agreed that there was very little reason not to go to traffic court. There was some chance that the officer wouldn't show up and your case would be dismissed. If the officer did appear, you could always opt for traffic school at the last minute. Furthermore, some speeding tickets (most notably radar tickets) can be challenged on a technicality. Other tickets can be dismissed by presenting evidence such as diagrams or photographs.
It's important to take a larger view of this whole subject. The police write many tickets knowing that the motorist will simply pay their fine by mail hoping to put the whole incident behind them. Other offenders will choose traffic school. Only a small group of motorists will ask for a trial in traffic court. And an even smaller number will actually go to trial.
Clearly, if everyone went to traffic court, the system would become overburdened and collapse. So, if you feel your ticket was unwarranted, ask for your day in court.