There are two kinds of traffic tickets: Ones you can beat and ones you can't. The problem is determining which kind you got. If it's your first ticket in ten years and you expect it will be another decade before you get another one, you may want to avoid this whole question, pay the fine and move on. Or you may want to consider going to traffic school, which takes a day of your time, but keeps you record clear. If you can't attend traffic school -- or choose not to -- you need to evaluate whether you have a winner or a loser, so you can develop the proper strategy to fight it in court. This article explains what you need to do.
Study the Exact Law You are Charged Under
Believe it or not, cops sometimes don't know the law. Of course, they know that making a U-turn is illegal, but they may not be up-to-date on exactly what the U-turn law in your state says. And it is the exact wording of the law that is most important to you if you are going to fight your ticket. And many laws are often so convoluted that it's not uncommon to find, upon careful reading, that what you did was not, technically speaking, a violation of the exact words of the statute. Always ask yourself the question: "What are the elements (or parts) of the offense I am charged with committing?"
For example, in most states, the law making U-turns illegal reads like this:
No person in a residence district shall make a U-turn when any other vehicle is approaching from either direction within 200 feet, except at an intersection when the approaching vehicle is controlled by an official traffic control device.
You should break this law down into its legal elements by drawing a line between each clause, like this:
No person in a residence district / shall make a U-turn / when any other vehicle is approaching from either direction / within 200 feet / except at an intersection / when the approaching vehicle / is controlled / by an official traffic control device.
Focusing on each element of a law is often the key to unlocking an effective defense. That's because, to be found guilty of having made this illegal U-turn, the State must prove you violated each "element" or clause of the offense. In this case, the State would have to prove each of the following facts:
1. You were driving in a "residence district."
2. You drove your vehicle in a 180-degree or "U-turn."
3. Another vehicle was approaching within 200 feet or less, in front of or behind you.
4. An "official traffic control device" at an "intersection" was not controlling the vehicle approaching you.
If you can show that your conduct didn't violate even one element of a traffic law, you are home and dry. For example, if the area where you were ticketed was not a "residence district," or the vehicle the officer claims was approaching was over 200 feet away, or you were at an intersection controlled by an "official traffic control device," you should quickly be found not guilty.
But will a judge really follow such a technical reading of the law? You bet. This type of hyper-technical, word-by-word reading of statutes is the key skill all lawyers and judges learn in law school. In fact, they know of no other approach. This even makes sense when you realize that the American legal system is built on the concept that you are innocent unless the government can prove you violated a law that prohibits clearly defined conduct -- for example, driving a motor vehicle faster than 65 mph on a public road. And doing this necessarily means proving you were guilty of violating every "element" of the law.
Create a Viable Defense
Even if you can't challenge the law you are charged with violating, all is not lost. You should ask yourself some other questions that might open up a defense.
Always Prepare to Contest Serious Violations.
If you're charged with anything that could land you in jail -- like reckless or drunk driving -- it is almost always wise to at least take the first steps necessary to fight the charge. In most states, this consists of telling the court clerk you want to plead not guilty and then actually going to court to enter your plea. Doing this will give you time to research the charges you face, including searching for information that might help you fight to reduce the charges to a less serious offense through a plea bargain. It also gives you time to find and consult a lawyer, if you decide one is necessary.
Defenses That Almost Never Fly
You must face the fact, thought, that simply saying "I didn't do it," or "the officer's lying," without presenting any specifics to back up your contention is highly unlikely to result in your being found not guilty. Similarly, generalized statements about the possible inadequacies of radar or laser techniques almost never result in your beating a speeding ticket. Even your successfully pointing out minor inaccuracies on your ticket, such as the officer having mistaken the color, make or model of your car when writing the ticket, will rarely get you off.
If you can't come up with anything better than the defenses listed here, it's probably a waste of time to fight your ticket, unless you really have no other choice but to play a long shot and hope the officer does not show up.
If the Officer Doesn't Show
No matter what your defense is, you normally win if the officer fails to show up. Suppose you decide you don't have much of a defense. For example, you ran a stop sign right in front of an officer or were caught doing 90 mph on the freeway with a 65-mph limit by an officer who paced you for two miles. Obviously, the attractiveness of traffic school goes up as your chances of beating the ticket in court go down. But what should you do if you aren't eligible for traffic school? Automatically pay the ticket? Maybe not. You always want to at least consider the possibility that the officer will not show up in court. In that case, in most states your ticket will probably be dismissed.
And don't underestimate the possibility of this happening. For all sorts of reasons, including the officer being on vacation, having a scheduling conflict, having been transferred, or not being notified of the court date, cops often miss court hearings.
Here are a few tips to help you decide if the arresting officer is likely to be a no-show.
The more serious the violation, the more likely the officer will
If you and a dozen others are ticketed at "quota time" for going 5 mph over the speed limit, the officer is less likely to show up than if you were cited for going 60 mph in a school zone.
The further the officer is located from the courthouse, the less
likely he is to appear.
In large counties this can really work to your advantage.
An officer isn't as likely to appear during his vacation.
There are usually more no-shows in summer.