Your Day in Traffic Court
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 their case in traffic court.
My rearview mirror exploded with blue and white lights. I glanced down at my speedometer — I was pushing 80 mph. But the cars around me were going about the same speed. Could this cop really be pulling me over?
I carefully navigated my way across six lanes of traffic. I pulled over on the shoulder and waited, my heart pounding. Moments later the motorcycle cop's helmeted face appeared in the passenger window.
"License and registration," he said, raising his voice over the roar of the traffic.
"What's the problem?" I asked.
"You were doing 80 in a 65-mile-an-hour zone." He disappeared before I could argue the point.
I sat there fuming, thinking of the money this would cost me, the increased insurance premiums or the cost and time to attend traffic school. And for what? Going 80 miles per hour on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles where speeds routinely reach 80 and even soar into the 90s? No way was I a reckless driver, the kind you see threading the needle between a tractor-trailer truck and a school bus. Those guys deserved tickets, not me. Still, I was—
When the cop returned I tried a few excuses on him.
Me: I was going with the flow of traffic.
Cop: You passed three cars while I was behind you.
Me: Maybe I was speeding, but I couldn't have been going 80 — not in this little gas/electric hybrid Honda Insight.
Cop: I followed you for a half mile. If you had seen me and slowed down, I wouldn't ticket you.
Me: I'm vulnerable in this little car and need to keep up with traffic.
Cop: You should drive slower and more carefully in a small car.
Obviously, he'd heard it all. I signed the ticket with a shaky hand and surrendered to my fate. But wait! Other drivers at Edmunds.com had received tickets and successfully contested them. I could do the same thing. I would fight my ticket.
A few days later, I shared this story with Walt Meyer, a friend of mine who is a freelance writer and also teaches at a comedy traffic school. I told him I was going to fight my ticket.
"You'll lose," he said.
"Why? I was going with the flow of traffic," I whined.
"Oh, so there was a road sign saying 'Go with the flow'?"
Jeez, and I thought he was my friend.
"If you really want to try to fight your ticket, read 'Beat the Cops' by Alex Carroll," Meyer said. "But you'll probably lose anyway."
I ordered the book through Carroll's Web site and read it. And for the first time since seeing those blue and white lights I felt a glimmer of hope. The book describes how the majority of tickets are issued to generate money for government municipalities. Insurance companies benefit from traffic tickets, too, raising your rates when your driving record shows a moving violation. The National Motorists Association claims that costly radar guns are donated to police departments by some insurance carriers to encourage them to write more speeding tickets.
Finally, I was getting somewhere in this process. I called Carroll and told him the details of my traffic stop.
"A speeding ticket based on pacing is the hardest kind to beat," he said.
"Pacing" is when a police officer follows you and checks your speed by looking at his speedometer. Speeding tickets can also be issued based on an officer "estimating" your speed — this is nothing more than a cop watching you and guessing how fast you are going.
According to Carroll, there are three ways to beat a ticket:
1. The cop doesn't show up for court 2. You exploit a technicality (such as a problem with the patrol car's speedometer) 3. You have a good argument for extenuating circumstances (you are speeding to get your pregnant wife to the hospital)
This reminded me of a story a friend told me. He was driving down a canyon road when he struck a bird, which became lodged under the windshield wipers. His daughters were in the car with him and they began screaming hysterically. He sped up to dislodge the bird and, at that moment, was pulled over for speeding. When he told this bizarre story to a judge, the ticket was dismissed.
My pacing ticket didn't fall easily into any of Carroll's three categories. The only technical angle to argue was to prove that my speedometer was malfunctioning. I spoke to Edmunds.com's technical editor and he told me the speedometer might in fact be wrong. My heart jumped. "I think it's actually a little low," he said.
Another tactic Carroll describes is to delay the trial to a time when the ticketing officer can't come to court. He suggested I call the station house where my California Highway Patrol officer was based and find out when he was on vacation, or what his days off were. This could be done by calling over a number of days to find out when he was working. Then, when I extended my court date, try to schedule it for a day that he wasn't on duty.
Other strategies might include requesting the officer's notes written on the back of the ticket hoping there is something there which is inaccurate.
I decided to extend the date of my trial to increase the chances the officer wouldn't appear in court. As I attempted to do this I made an alarming discovery. You can request only one postponement (called an "extension") and it must be requested 10 days before your trial date. This is stated in very small print on the ticket, and it doesn't really make sense. I mean, you're more apt to have a scheduling conflict arise at the last minute rather than 10 days earlier. But this is the way the law is written so I was committed to the assigned trial date.
However, I still had one ace in the hole. If the ticketing officer did show up, and my defense was falling on deaf ears, I could quote California Vehicle Code 41501 allowing me to attend traffic school. But — and this was important — I should make a photocopy of the law because some judges weren't familiar with it.
"If it looks like you're going to lose, say, 'Your honor, I see that you're very busy here. I will cite CVC 41501 and take traffic school,'" Meyer told me.
With this backup plan in mind I set about creating a reasonable sounding argument. But I had to get busy. My court date was in three days.
To be continued...