Ever wondered what the officer who just ticketed you is doing, sitting in his patrol car after writing you up? He is probably writing notes -- something on the back of your ticket -- with details of why he ticketed you and what the conditions were at the time.
Just before trial, he will typically review his notes, and sometimes refer to them while testifying. With courtroom experience, an officer can often glance down at his notes every few seconds, rattling off a narrative that sounds like he was recounting something that happened yesterday. But because the officer probably won't remember much about what happened and doesn't want to be tripped up fabricating a detail, most officers will depart very little from their notes.
Get The Officer's Notes
If you can obtain those notes before your traffic court trial, you may be able to glean the officer's strategy for convicting you. Fortunately, in many states you have the right to demand access to the officer's notes made at or soon after your ticket was issued through a process called "discovery." You also have the right to demand access to other information, like instruction manuals on the use of equipment that was used to clock your speed. This information can be a huge help when cross-examining the officer and presenting your own case at trial.
To discover the officer's notes, you must make a specific written request for the disclosure of all notes or documents relevant to your case. If you have an arraignment, you may be able to do this there. But if, as is far more common, you plead not guilty and post bail without an arraignment, you'll need to make your request promptly by mail. Send your discovery request to both the police agency that ticketed you and to the local prosecuting agency. Ask your local court if you have the right of "discovery" and how to write a letter demanding access to the policeman's notes.
If Your Discovery Request is Ignored
Because so few defendants ask to see the evidence against them, many police, prosecutors, and even some judges, believe this "discovery right" is not available in traffic court. Accordingly, even though your discovery request is probably proper in your state, you may find it's ignored. If so, you'll need to persist in making this request, reiterating that you believe access to the officer's notes is critical to presenting your defense.
If you get no response to your discovery request within three weeks, you will need to go to court and make a "pre-trial motion" to ask the judge to order the police to release the notes to you. Lawyers call this a "motion to compel discovery" or dismiss the case. Your best bet is to call or visit the court clerk to schedule this motion before your scheduled trial date. Failing this, it may be possible to have your motion to compel discovery considered on the day of your trial.
Assuming a pretrial hearing to consider your discovery request is scheduled, be prepared to show the judge a copy of your written discovery request. Then ask him to formally order the prosecution or police agency to provide a copy of the officer's notes. Be sure to ask the judge to order that this be done prior to any scheduled trial date, so you have enough time to use them to prepare.
If your discovery request has still been ignored when your trial date rolls around, you may want to ask the judge to dismiss your case. Here is sample language that, of course, will need to be adjusted to fit your facts:
Your honor, the prosecution has failed to provide the discovery I properly requested ("and," if true, "that you ordered"). I move to dismiss the case on account of the prosecution's failure to provide discovery. Here is a copy of the written request I made a month ago for the officer's notes. I sent them to the prosecutor and police agency, and they both ignored me. I have not waived my right to a speedy trial, and I shouldn't have to. I can't properly prepare for trial even if the notes are produced now. As a result, I request that the charges against me be dismissed.
If the following requirements are met, you may get your case dismissed at this point:
If the judge won't dismiss your case, renew your request right then that you be given a chance to examine the officer's notes. The judge should at least be willing to give you a few minutes to do this.
What To Do With The Officer's Notes
If you receive a copy of the officer's notes, you'll want to study them carefully. It's possible that these notes may cause you to re-evaluate your defense strategy, when you know what the officer is going to say at trial. Here are some things to look for:
What the Notes Don't Say. If the notes lack key details, you may be able to challenge the officer's memory. Look to see if the notes: