For most people, traffic court is their first encounter with the inside of a courtroom. Although this can be intimidating, being armed with some commonsense legal advice about how to handle a traffic ticket or summons can
help a driver achieve a positive resolution.
- determine whether the jurisdiction allows for plea bargaining
- read over your summons before arriving in court
- arrive a few minutes early to talk to the prosecutor
- understand how your insurance company raises premiums based on traffic infraction points
- consult with a lawyer who regularly appears in traffic court
Plea bargaining is the process by which a defendant, in this case a driver, can have a conversation with the prosecutor in order to reach an agreed upon outcome for the summons or ticket. Some jurisdictions forbid such discussions as a way of more strictly enforcing motor vehicle laws. Many jurisdictions, however, endorse plea bargaining as a way to encourage drivers to be honest and forthcoming while allowing prosecutors to reward them with a more lenient penalty. In order to best prepare for your day in traffic court, call up the traffic court in advance and ask if plea bargaining is permitted.
While it may seem obvious, it is important for a driver to carefully read the entire ticket before the scheduled court date. A driver should be familiar with the accusations made against him or her. This includes the location where the infraction took place, the type of infraction alleged (e.g., speeding, failure to signal), and the date and time of the infraction. A driver should also check all of the identifying information on the ticket. This includes the driver’s name, address, driver’s license number, etc. Any incorrect information can render the summons insufficient.
For instance, if the driver’s name or license plate number is incorrect then a judge could dismiss the ticket because it is outwardly insufficient. Likewise, if a person is accused of running a stop sign but there is no stop sign at the location described on the ticket, a judge can dismiss for failure to properly describe the alleged infraction. Only a thorough review of the ticket will bring any such deficiencies to light.
In a jurisdiction that allows plea bargaining, a driver should get to court a half-hour before court begins in order to try and talk to the prosecutor. Many prosecutors will meet with attorneys first as a professional courtesy since attorneys often have to appear in several courts on the same day.
When your turn arrives, simply explain to the prosecutor your side of the story. This is likely the first time the prosecutor is hearing about your case, so start from the beginning. The prosecutor will rarely dismiss your case. Rather, if the prosecutor finds your story to be truthful and/or compelling, he or she might offer you a chance to plead guilty to a reduced infraction. This means that although you are still admitting to have violated the traffic law, the reduced violation will likely carry a reduced fine and/or fewer points.
Many of the more serious traffic violations are assigned points by a State’s department or commission of motor vehicles. Once a certain number of points have been assigned, the commission can suspend or revoke the driver’s license. In addition, most car insurance carriers increase a driver’s premiums when any points are added to the driver’s record. Therefore, many drivers ask prosecutors if they can plead to an infraction that will not result in points. A prosecutor might comply and instead offer a infraction with a drastically higher fine. Sometimes, the fine is so high that it ends up costing the driver more than any potential increase in premiums. Therefore, drivers should understand how their premiums will be affected in order to make the most informed decision when discussing a plea.
Many lawyers and attorneys offer free consultations, so take advantage. Each case is unique and certain tickets can greatly benefit from legal representation, while others have no such need. In either event, attending a consultation with an attorney who regularly appears in traffic court can have tremendous benefits.
Often times the initial consultation is free of charge. Many attorneys have established relationships with local prosecutors and can offer advice on how to approach the plea bargain conversation. Additionally, should you be in a jurisdiction that does not allow plea bargaining, the attorney can offer some advice on how to prepare for a trial. Remember that a free consultation might only get you so far. If you feel you need more help, you can attend several consultations and find an attorney who you feel will offer the best opportunity to win your case.
Many drivers fear the possibility standing trial. However, drivers should understand that traffic court, unlike criminal court, is predicated on the fact that most drivers will be representing themselves at trial. There are usually no juries and the judge is both the arbiter of fact and law. Drivers should understand that going to trial carries a risk of losing, and that the judge’s decision often comes down to whether the driver or police officer is found to be more credible. Drivers who know that they did not violate any traffic laws should feel comfortable going to trial and telling their side of the story.
Many drivers feel they were entitled to violate the law because of some special circumstance. Unfortunately, the law is often black and white on what is legal, and what is illegal. Admitting illegal activity at the start often makes the rest of the trial an uphill battle. The judge will be forced to find the driver guilty unless they provide a valid defense that justifies the illegal driving. This argument is a bit more legally involved and might require the assistance of an attorney. Instead of trying the “ I did it, but . . .” argument with the judge, a driver should first try and have this same conversation with the prosecutor. The legal intricacies are not in play, and the driver’s justification might persuade the prosecutor to offer a plea to a reduced violation.
The duration of the traffic court experience can last up to several hours. Of this period, very little is spent in front of the judge. Most of the time you will be interacting with the court staff and court officers. Although the judge decides the law, the court staff and officers have their own influence over the process. Drivers who forget their manners run the risk of offending or annoying the court staff. Those drivers who are courteous and polite might get in the staff’s good graces. Benefits could include expedited procedures and maybe even a good word to the judge.
During trial, the police officer will testify to the facts and circumstances, which she observed to be a traffic violation. The driver will have a chance to cross-examine the officer before the testimony is finished, but this must be in the form of questions. The driver cannot disagree with the officer during her testimony time but instead must wait his or her turn to testify. Testimony is not a conversation, and drivers should try and refrain from treating it as such.. Following court rules may be difficult for drivers, but a basic understanding will help the driver through the trial process.
The traffic court experience is many drivers' first encounter with the criminal justice system. Although drivers may feel intimidated, the courts are aware of this and often offer additional explanations in order to help drivers feel comfortable. That being said, it is good to know a couple of key points in advance. A basic understanding of how to plea bargain, how to review the summons, and what to expect at trial can help a driver through the process.
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