Deciding Whether or Not to Fight Your Ticket

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In most U.S. jurisdictions, tickets for moving violations are sometimes accompanied by “points” against your driver’s license.  As a driver accumulates points, he or she may be required to attend a defensive driving course, re-take the driving test, or surrender their license in extreme cases.  All states entitle individuals facing license suspension to receive a hearing.

You should study your ticket and look for the specific traffic law that the officer claims that you violated.  Break the law down into understandable phrases or elements.  Most laws will state, “It is a violation to do this and that”.  If you did not violate every element of the specific law, a judge may decide to dismiss your case on a technicality.  If the officer cites the wrong statute on the ticket, or grossly misidentified the highway or your make of car, you might get your ticket dismissed.

Determine if in fact you violated the law, but had a legal reason for doing so.  Any emergency situation may be grounds for the court to take into consideration your reason for violating the law. 

Some examples of these might include:

  • A medical emergency such as a passenger in labor and you are en route to the hospital
  • Taking evasive action to avoid an accident
  • Briefly speeding up while passing another vehicle on a non-divided highway where passing in the opposite lane is permitted
  • If you are being chased or in fear for your life

Keep in mind that is always up to the court or judge to decide what constitutes a valid reason for the offense committed.

Consequences of Your Ticket

1. Fines

When a person is found guilty of a moving violation, it has multiple consequences in terms of the financial impact and the effect it has on the individual’s driving record.  The fines, penalties and fees for traffic offenses vary greatly depending on a number of circumstances.  Generally, the average cost of a speeding ticket ranges from a fine of $150 to $200.

However, if you are cited for speeding in a school or construction zone, the penalty will be assessed at a much higher rate.  In addition, the greater your speed over the limit, the greater the fine.  Traveling at 10-15 mph over the limit may result in a fine of $288, whereas going 20-30 mph over results in a penalty of $438 depending on the local and state laws where the offense occurred.

Some states assess a hefty fine for illegally using the carpool or high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. In California, the fine for this can range between $400 and $1000.  Even if a police officer does not catch you committing this offense, you may still be in danger from programs that allow other drivers to report the offenders. 

2. Traffic Ticket Point System and Driving Record

Most states have a system that assigns point values for traffic offenses.  Accumulation of a certain number of points within a given period of time may result in suspension or revocation of the motorist’s license.  The point system assigns a certain number of points for specific violations.  The violations considered more serious are assigned a greater number of points.

The points system helps the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) track reckless drivers.  Points can usually be added or taken away, depending on your state’s rules.  Many states allow the removal of points from a driver’s record under certain circumstances.  If a driver has no violations for a fixed period of time, a specified number of points will be removed.  Points may also be automatically removed after the passage of time.  The severity of the moving violation will add points to your driving record, which can result in various fines, fees, and eventually the suspension of your license.

Some jurisdictions provide exceptions for professional drivers such as taxi, bus or trick drivers.  Individuals in these professions may be allowed to accumulate more points than a non-professional driver before their license will be affected.

To learn about the point system’s rules and regulations in your area, contact your local DMV office.  They can give you specific information on the point system that may affect you.  They can also tell you how many points you have on your record.  Most states allow you to request a copy of your driving record for a nominal fee, usually about $10.

3. Impact on Insurance Rates

Insurance companies raise premiums based on the assumption that a speeding driver is not a safe driver.  Thus, there is a potential likelihood of an accident in the future, which will be a huge expenditure for them. 

Most insurance companies will allow one moving violation every three to five years.  Violations that exceed that will likely result in your insurance premiums being raised.  Insurance companies give a “good-driver” discount which can save hundred of dollars in yearly insurance premiums.

The more infractions you have on your driving record, the more risky you are to insure.  You may have a limited selection of providers that are willing to insure you.  However, there are auto insurance companies that specialize in offering affordable coverage to high-risk drivers.  Most states keep violations on your driving record for three years, and in some states as long as 5 years or more.  Policyholders may not realize that their insurers continue to charge higher rates, even after the violation has been removed from their driving record.  The insurance company usually only checks your record when you apply for a policy.  Therefore, it is important to take it upon yourself to let them know when the time period has expired.

If your license has been suspended, you may need to get an SR-22 filing before the DMV will reinstate your license.  An SR-22 filing tells the DMV that you have at least the minimum amount of required insurance for your state.  It also means that the insurance company will contact the DMV if your insurance is canceled or you let it lapse.  Once you get your license back, you will need to maintain your SR-22 for the required amount of time, usually between one and three years.

4. License Suspension

A state may temporarily suspend your driving privileges for a number of reasons, including:

  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Refusing to take a blood-alcohol test
  • Driving without liability insurance
  • Speeding (excessive speed)
  • Reckless driving
  • Leaving the scene of an accident involving injuries
  • Failing to pay a driving-related fine
  • Failing to appear in court for a traffic offense
  • Failing to file an accident report
  • Failure to maintain insurance
  • Owing back child support (in some states)
  • Street racing
  • Failure to properly secure a child (3 or more convictions)
  • Truancy for juveniles for habitual absence from school

If you face license suspension, you will be allowed a hearing where you can explain the circumstances regarding the violations.  You may be able to offer mitigating circumstances that led to the infraction.  All hearings are tape-recorded and are often conducted by telephone.  The Hearing Officer from the Department of Licensing will review the issues to be decided.  Their decision may take up to two weeks from the date of the hearing.  If they decide to suspend your license, you may appeal the decision through Superior Court.  You have the right to be represented by legal counsel at your own expense.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains a National Driver Registry that shares information regarding license suspensions, revocations, or those convicted of serious traffic violations.  They maintain a computerized database of information on individuals provided by the state motor vehicle agencies.  A suspension or revocation must be cleared by the state in which it originated.

Driving with a revoked or suspended license is considered a serious offense.  The punishment can range from large fines, mandatory imprisonment, or both.  In some states, the prosecution must prove that the motorist had actual or constructive knowledge that his or her license was suspended or revoked at the time he or she was driving.

5. Jail Time or Community Service

The traffic offenses that are most likely to include jail time may include:

  • Driving under the influence
  • Reckless driving
  • Leaving the scene of an accident
  • Fleeing from or eluding the police
  • Vehicular manslaughter or homicide

Driving Under the Influence (DUI)

Among driving violations, driving under the influence is usually considered a special case.  In every state, it is a crime to operate a vehicle if the affects of either drugs or alcohol impair your ability to safely operate that vehicle.  The penalties for a DUI in most states have grown much harsher in recent years.  In every state, a driver convicted of a DUI will lose their licenses for a period of time.  Some states require short jail terms for first-time offenders.  Most states require drunk-driving offenders to complete some type of treatment program.

The minimum penalty for a first-time misdemeanor DUI can include one to ten days in jail.  The maximum can be up to 6 months in jail in most states.  Serious traffic offenses may carry the penalty of a jail sentence.  All individuals accused of a crime or traffic offenses that carry the penalty of a jail sentence have the following rights:

  • To have a lawyer present at all hearings
  • To have a lawyer appointed at public expense if the defendant cannot afford to hire one
  • To represent themselves without an attorney
  • To a public, speedy, and jury trial
  • To cross-examine any witness who testifies against you
  • To call witnesses to testify on your behalf and have the court compel their attendance
  • To testify or not testify on your own behalf
  • To appeal to the Superior Court if convicted after a not-guilty plea

Reckless Driving

Reckless driving can be categorized as a Class 1 Misdemeanor in certain states, which carries a sentence of up to 12 months in jail.  It is considered a criminal offense and is in the same misdemeanor classification of many other offenses such as assault and battery and petty larceny.  Charges for reckless driving can vary between excessively exceeding the speed limit, passing a stopped school bus or engaging in racing on a public road.

Leaving the Scene of an Accident

When a motor vehicle accident occurs, state traffic laws requires the drivers involved to following certain procedures immediately following the incident:

  • Give the driver’s name and address, and registration number of the vehicle to the other party involved in the collision
  • On request, show the person’s driver’s license to the other driver involved or the police officer
  • Render reasonable assistance to anyone injured in the accident
  • If you caused property damage and the owner of the other vehicle was not present, you are required to leave a note with your information

If a driver leaves the scene of a motor vehicle accident, they can be found guilty of a misdemeanor, which can result in fines and jail time ranging between 2 weeks or 2 years.  If the accident resulted in physical injury to another party or property damage in excess of a certain amount, they may be charged with a felony.  The first offense may subject the driver to fines ranging from $500 to $1000 and 6 months to 2 years in jail.  Their driver’s license will be suspended and they will be assessed up to 8 points on their driving record in states that use the point system.

An individual who leaves the scene of an accident that results in another individual’s death in order to avoid prosecution or evade apprehension will be charged with a felony.  The fines can range from $1000 to $5000.  A prison sentence of 2 to 10 years will be imposed, with a minimum of 1-year in jail.   Some states have much harsher penalties that could result in being fined anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 and up to 15 years behind bars.

Eluding or Evading the Police

Attempting to flee or elude a police officer after they have signaled you to pull over is against the law.  You could face a fine of $500 to $5,000 and jail time of 10 days to 12 months.  In some cases, you may have your driver’s license suspended for 6 months to 2 years.  If you create a risk of death or injury to anyone, including yourself, in the process, the penalties will be much harsher.

Vehicular Homicide or Manslaughter

Vehicular homicide in most states is a crime that is categorized as a felony.  It can lead to a criminal charge and conviction for murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide or negligent homicide.  The exact name of the crime varies in each state.  Some state laws include unintentional deaths, or require proof that the driver was reckless or grossly negligent, without intending to kill someone.  The only difference between a vehicular homicide and other homicides is the use of a motor vehicle as a weapon, as opposed to a gun or knife.  If the elements for murder can be proven, a defendant charged with vehicular homicide can be tried for first-degree murder.

If the individual was driving under the influence and involved in an accident resulting in a person’s death, they will face serious and substantial mandatory jail time of up to 30 years, heavy fines and the loss of their driving privileges for up to 6 years. The states of Kentucky and North Carolina have charged impaired drivers with capital murder. 

Judges considering sentences in alcohol-related vehicular homicide cases must also weigh factors such as the driver’s prior convictions, the recklessness of the crime and whether the defendant shows remorse for the crime.  More lenient sentences are often considered if it falls in line with what the victims wanted.

However, if the individual is prosecuted on a DUI charge, this may bar later prosecution for vehicular homicide if the charges arise out of the same incident.  This falls under the Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution, which provides that no person can be put on trial and convicted for the same crime twice.  To further complicate matters, a defendant can be convicted twice of vehicular homicide if he caused the death of two different individuals in the course of a single accident.

In some states, the killing of an unborn child can be considered a “person” for the purposes of a state’s vehicular homicide law.  The laws distinguishing between the “viability” of an unborn child vary greatly.  Viability is usually based on a specific amount of time in which the fetus has remained in the womb, or medical evidence regarding the development stage of the fetus.  Viability may also be defined as a child who can survive outside the womb.  If the fetus was not viable, the charge might be lessened to first-degree manslaughter or in some cases, no liability at all.

Is Traffic School an Option?

Often your best alternative is to take a safety course for drivers.  Nearly every state allows perpetrators of a traffic violation to attend some sort of traffic school in return for the violation being wiped off their records.  Traffic school typically consists of a 6-8 hour class, which describes the dangers of committing traffic violations.  Some states allow the completion of traffic school in lieu of paying the fine.  Others may require payment of the fine in addition to the cost of traffic school. 

Traffic violators may be eligible to attend traffic school once a year.  In some states it’s an option once every 18 or 24 months.  Those caught exceeding the speed limit by more than 15 to 20 mph may not be eligible.  The type of violation can affect whether traffic school is an option for the offender.

Attending traffic school may protect your license status and keep your auto insurance premiums from going up.  These programs vary in their standards, the cost, and time to attend the program.  Some states allow individuals to complete online traffic school, while others require that you sign up through a court clerk or appear before a judge.

Deciding to Fight the Ticket

Begin by preparing your defense immediately once the police officer has given you the ticket and has left the scene by doing the following:

  • Record relevant details, including traffic, road and weather conditions
  • Note the time of day and any extenuating circumstances
  • Take pictures, especially if your defense depends on something such as an obscured speed limit sign

Calculate the cost of fighting the ticket and weigh it against the chances of getting it dismissed or reduced to a lower charge.  The key fact to remember is that if you can prove even one element of the infraction is missing from the facts; you may have a good defense.  Once you’ve made the decision to fight your ticket, plan on how you will argue your case.

If there is a particularly egregious error on the ticket, you may be able to have it dismissed by the judge, such as the wrong license plate or incorrect vehicle code statute.  If your defense is based upon extenuating circumstances, make sure they are sufficient in nature to warrant a dismissal.  This may include emergency of some sort, which got you cited for a speeding offense.  If you were truly on your way to the hospital due to a medical emergency, be prepared to bring documents proving your case.

1. Can you challenge the officer’s version of events?

In many cases, you may be able to challenge the police officer’s view of what happened.  This is especially likely in situations where a cop must make a subjective judgment as to whether you violated the law.  Deciding whether it is safe to exceed the speed limit may be one example.  In some states, the posted speed limit is not an “absolute” limit.  If you are accused of making a sudden and dangerous lane change, you may be able to reply that the car in front of you had suddenly applied its brakes for no apparent reason.  You were responding in the best possible manner to avoid an accident.

Go to the officer’s original position and check for any obstructions that may have caused them to have a poor view of the alleged offense.  If you can cast doubt on the officer’s ability to accurately perceive what happened, you may have a good defense.  The types of evidence most likely to help your case are:

  • Witness statements that may include passengers or bystanders who can testify to your version of the events
  • An easy-to-read diagram showing where your vehicle and the officer’s vehicle were in relation to key locations and objects, such as an intersection, traffic light or other vehicle
  • Photographs of stop signs and road conditions can be useful in illustrating that a stop sign or speed limit sign was obscured

It is your word against the police officer’s in most cases.  Unless you can provide the court with compelling reasons or evidence to demonstrate that the officer is lying or mistaken, the officer’s word will most likely be taken over yours. 

2. Was it a "mistake of fact"?

If you can demonstrate to the judge that you made an honest and reasonable error, you may be allowed some leeway.  The judge may find that you made a “mistake of fact” meaning that the accused should not be guilty of an offense which he had no intention of committing.

In order to succeed in this regard, the accused must establish this defense by clear and convincing evidence.

Several examples may include:

  • Failing to stop before coming to the pedestrian crosswalk lines due to the fact they could not clearly be seen (old and faded in need of repainting)
  • Failure to stop at a stop sign because the sign was hidden from view due to a broken branch caused by a recent storm, or removed as a prank

The judge might dismiss your ticket for accidentally running a stop sign if it was newly installed, and part of a regular route that you were familiar with.  If this sign had been up for several weeks or if you were also speeding at the time, the judge may not accept this defense.

3. Can you legally justify your action?

You may successfully argue that your actions were “legally justified” considering the circumstances of your alleged violation.  If you were charged with driving too slowly in the left hand lane, it is a legal defense in all states that you had to slow down to make a legal left turn.  This fact legally justified your action.

Any emergency not of your own making may constitute a legal necessity defense.  If you swerve across a double yellow line to avoid a serious and immediate danger to yourself or others may act as a legal defense.  Some examples of these are:

  • To avoid hitting another vehicle or pedestrian
  • To avoid hitting an animal that has just appeared in the path of the road
  • An obstacle in the road caused you to swerve to avoid dangerous injury

Other emergency situations might include:

  • Making an emergency stop on a freeway due to a breakdown or malfunction of your vehicle
  • You became ill and temporarily sped up to exit the roadway
  • Your passenger suddenly needed medical attention and you exceeded the speed limit to get to the nearest hospital

The key defense is to convincingly argue that you were forced to violate the law in order to avoid a serious and immediate danger to yourself or others in the process.

4. Is there something in the wording of the law that does not match your circumstance?

Your first step should be to study the exact language of the law you were charged with violating.  Every ticket contains the actual vehicle code or statute that a motorist was cited for.  Take some time to look this up.  If you can prove even one element of the infraction is missing from the facts, you can present this to the judge and request that your case be dismissed.

Does Paying the Ticket Admit Guilt?

When you pay a ticket directly, you are essentially pleading guilty to a traffic offense.  You may not have read all of the fine print on the citation or realized that you were entering a guilty plea by paying your ticket.  The prosecutor may offer you a plea bargain, which often includes the pleading guilty in exchange for a reduced charge.

Consequences of the Guilty Plea

Pleading guilty to any traffic offense can result in consequences many people don’t take into consideration.  These may include points on your driver’s license, an increase in auto insurance rates and possibly even a criminal conviction on your record.  It is wise to talk with a lawyer before entering a guilty plea to any offense.  If you are charged with a criminal offense that carries the possibility of jail time, the court will appoint a lawyer to represent you if you can prove that you cannot afford one.

Constitutional Rights Under the Law

By pleading guilty, you waive your constitutional rights.  Your right to “due process” requires the State to prove its case against you in court beyond a reasonable doubt.  In a case involving a violation of the speed limit, the ticketing officer’s testimony must meet strict requirements to prove that the officer is certified to used the speed measure device (radar, laser, pace, vascar).  They must also prove that the device is officially approved, certified and tested, and that the officer used the device properly to measure the speed of your vehicle.

You also have the right to a speedy trial, which requires the State to take your case to trial within a certain amount of time.  The length of time may vary in each state.  However, if you request a continuance of your case, the court will view this as waiving the speedy trial rule.  Many individuals are not aware of their constitutional rights and do not properly assert them.  By failing to assert your rights in traffic court, you may unknowingly forfeit them.

Your Rights Also Include:

  • To know the nature of the charge filed against you.
  • To know the identity of the person filing that charge.
  • To have a copy of the charging instrument in your possession.
  • To speak with an attorney before entering any please and a continuance to talk to that attorney.
  • The right a trial, and in certain cases, a trial by jury.
  • To have the public defender represent you, in certain cases, if you cannot afford an attorney.

Before entering a guilty plea, you should know the answer to these questions:

  • What is the maximum jail time and fine that can be imposed?
  • What are the court costs that may be you may be required to pay?
  • How long will you have to pay the fine and court costs?
  • Is the prosecutor making a sentencing recommendation, and if so, what is it?
  • What is the mandatory minimum sentence for the offense?
  • Will this offense be a “prior” the purposes of enhanced sentencing in future criminal or traffic cases?
  • Is there a license suspension or are points associated with being found guilty?
  • Will you have to maintain special insurance or equipment as a result of a guilty plea?
  • Is probation or community service a stipulation of the plea agreement?

No matter how minor you believe the traffic offense to be, it is in your best interest to take the time and consult with a legal professional that specializes in this type of law.  Once you enter a guilty plea, it is nearly impossible to rescind it.

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