Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How to Fight your Traffic Ticket

So you got caught speeding, or making some illegal maneuver (what the state calls a moving violation), and now you've got this yellow (or white) piece of paper that you wish would just disappear. Well I'm here to show you how to do just that.

As the officer politely explained to you, you have two options: pay the ticket, or take it to court. It turns out, you've got a few more options than that:

1. Pay the fine and the points will be assessed (your least favorite option)
2. Hire a traffic attorney and hope for the best (this is probably what most people end up doing, and if you don't have time, it's not a bad idea)
3. Ask for a court date, and litigate the ticket yourself (this is where the fun is)
4. Don't do anything and get your license suspended (ok, they don't really give you this option, but that's what will happen if you don't act).

The clock is ticking

You've got 30 or 60 days to take option 1 or 2 depending on the county you got your citation in. You'll probably get a little pamphlet that will tell you how long you have, but the point is, act quickly. It might take some old fashion courthouses a few days (even weeks) to get the hand-written citation entered into the computer system, so sometimes you'll have to wait several days before you can do anything about your citation. If unsure, simply call the courthouse and find out.

Option 1 - Plead guilty, pay the fine, take the points

I would even go so far as to say that you should never just pay the ticket and take the points. Regardless of your driving record, what kind of citation this is, and weather you got a ticket in some other state or rural county, this is almost never an option. At least not until you've exhausted all your other options.

Option 2 - Get representation, make it someone else's problem

If you're in a major city or metropolitan area, within a week or so, your mailbox should be flooded by traffic attorneys wanting to represent you. This, combined with the internet and yellow pages, will serve as your starting point to hire an attorney to represent you. Most attorneys will offer you a full refund if they are not successful in keeping the points off of your license. Remember, that's not to say that you won't have to pay court costs, or a reduced fine, or both. What they actually do is try to get the case dismissed, which you could do yourself, but more on that later.

Grab your phone and call at several attorneys and get the following information:
  1. How much they charge (reasonable rates for Florida are about $60 - $100 if you're near the big cities). Rural locations have fewer lawyers who like to charge more.
  2. How long they have been in the business.
  3. If they will represent you themselves, or if they will have someone else do the legwork. Why do yo care? Because if the hire someone else, you're not getting the most bang for you buck. I don't like middle men, neither should you.
  4. If they offer a full refund in the event they are unable to keep the points off your license. Remember, you might still have to pay a fine and possible court costs.
Here's an attorney that I have used many times with success for violations in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties:
James H Babkes, Attorney
300 South Pine Island Road Suite 249
Plantation, Florida, 33324
Phone: (954)452-8630
Option 3 - innocent until proven guilty

This isn't criminal court, it's traffic court, which is a whole different ball game. It's all about technicalities. I'm going to show you how you can do exactly what any good attorney would do, all by yourself.

Let's break it down:

Ask for a court date. Sometimes this is as easy as calling the courthouse that is listed either on the lower portion on the front of your ticket, or somewhere on the back. Other times the courthouse requests that you mail (or fax) them a written plea of "Not Guilty" in order to request a court date. If you are unsure, look to see what county is listed on your citation and then do a search for that county's courthouse on google. For example: "Alachua county courthouse" (which happens to be in gainesville). You may have to send in either a copy of your citation or the original. In either case, make sure you scan in, or make a photocopy of your citation for yourself in case the ink fades on the original.

Wait for the notice. Depending on how backed up the courts are, it may take several months for you to receive a blue piece of paper in the mail that tells you when and where to appear in court. If you hire an attorney, this paper will be sent to both you and the attorney representing you, and both of your names and addresses will appear on the notice. The first notice you should get will likely be for a "Pre-Trial conference". This is not the one with the actual trial with the judge. Moreover, the officer who pulled you over will not have to appear.

Examine your ticket for errors. Look at your citation carefully. Specifically, look in three places for mistakes, either of which will result in an immediate dismissal of your ticket.
  • Location #1: Make sure the direction that you were traveling at the time you were pulled over is checked off. If nothing is checked here, when you go to court, all you have to say is "Move to dismiss, no direction of travel listed. The case will be dismissed, and you will pay absolutely nothing.
  • Location #2: Check to see that the type of radar or equipment that was used to determine your speed is shown. If this section is blank, at your pre-trial conference, just say "Move to dismiss, no equipment listed", and you're off the hook.
  • Location #3: Look for the Florida statute that you allegedly violated. If there is none listed, show up to court, and say "Move to dismiss, no statute shown". If there is a statute, then look it up and make sure that the infraction you are being charged for is consistent with the statute. For example, if you allegedly ran a red light, make sure the statute says something about how you shouldn't run traffic lights. Often, the officer will forget the statute or write the wrong one in. This has even happened to me on a computer printed ticket! In my example photo, the statue listed is 316.189(1), which happens to be correct.
If they got it all right and the ticket is free of errors, and you have a relatively unblemished driving record (no tickets in the past year or more), your best bet is to change your plea from "Not Guilty" to "No Contest" or "Nolo contendere" (same thing). This, while not an admission of guilt, is basically telling the judge (or magistrate), that you are asking for the mercy of the court. The judge will look at your driving record and will most likely withhold adjudication, which means no points on your license, and he or she may reduce the fine.

Show up to Court. By this time, you should already have a strategy of what you're going to do when you go to court. Remember to come early (I'll tell you why in a bit). If you're late, or you don't show - the court will immediately suspend your license.

When you arrive, sit up front. Look for the lawyer(s) seated or standing up near the front of the courtroom. These well dressed people get to go first. Sit near them so that you can hear what goes on and learn the tricks of the trade. You've got nowhere to go, so you might as well use your time wisely.

At the pre-trial conference. The first notice you receive in the mail will be for a pre-trial conference where there will be a magistrate (no judge), and the officer will not be present. Here you can bring about any motions for dismissal, or enter a change of plea. That's it, two options.

My advice is to first bring about any motions to dismiss if you have them. If that fails, or if you don't have any reasons to dismiss, then do the following: Ask the magistrate if you could "hear the offer for a change of plea to no-contest" (it's important to be polite here). This basically tells him or her that you don't want to change your plea just yet, but that you'd like to hear what the magistrate would do if you did. If he or she is nice, then they'll usually give you this information. If the magistrate says something like "I'll withhold adjudication and reduce your fine to X dollars", then my recommendation is for you to go ahead and enter a change of plea by proclaiming "Change of plea, your honor". If the magistrate is not in a good mood, and doesn't want to tell you what you would get ahead of time, or says that they will assess points and/or charge court costs, you should then ask for a trial by saying "request Trial, your honor".

The Trial. If you've gotten this far, that means you weren't too successful in getting your ticket dismissed and/or you didn't like the plea for "no contest". Long after your pre-trial, you will get another notice in the mail notifying you of your trial date. The officer who pulled you over, any witnesses, and any other plaintiff's (if any) must show. If the officer (or plaintiff in the case of an accident) does not show, your case will be immediately dismissed.

If the officer appears in court, you should do the following: Try to bring any motions to dismiss if you have any. You may try to bring the same motion that was previously denied for whatever reason. You never know, it may get accepted this time around.

If you have no grounds for dismissal, and the officer appears, first look towards the officer and say "Are you prepared to proceed?". It's amazing, but sometimes officers will show up to court without proper documentation, or forget their logbook and say "no". At this point, you simply "move to dismiss" and you're done. If the officer comes prepared to proceed, you should "change of plea to no contest" and take what the court gives you. It is almost never a good idea to actually try to litigate the citation if the officer is present and has all their paperwork. Your chances of success are minuscule, and you risk aggravating the judge and being charged court costs.

Best of luck!

* Although my example is for Florida, these tips are valid for any state, your citation might look a little different. Check with your courthouse for any changes in exact courthouse procedure.

7 comments:

  1. I can't believe that someone took the time to post this useful information four years ago & there isn't a single comment. Luckily for me, the officer though traffic enforcement seemed to be a very serious matter to him, he wasn't as serious about writing the ticket & left out the equipment used. Thanks for the help.

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  2. The judge immediately denied my motion to dismiss for no equipment listed. I asked for trial & turned to walk out when she said, do you have the same copy I do ? I said I hope so. She looked at my copy & I looked at hers. It was clear that the friendly officer had tried to write it in later. The judge asked to see the original from the court file. No equipment listed, Case dismissed !
    Thank you for the help

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  6. I really appreciate the author of this blog writing this information but there is a huge error regarding pre-trial conferences. I just came from one and the judge made an announcement at the beginning saying that we only had two options: request a change of plea to no contest or request a trial. This blog says that you can make a motion to dismiss and this is not the case, at least as of May 2014 in a Broward County, FL court.

    I was one of the lucky ones (or so I thought) because the officer forgot to check a travel direction on my citation so I was all set to ask for a motion to dismiss, per the suggestion in this blog. The judge said that there were no grounds to dismiss for that reason. Then I asked politely what his offer would be if I changed my plea to no contest. He said no points or fee but I had to pay court costs of $175, more than the ticket! So I asked for a trial and will probably try the "Move to dismiss, no direction of travel listed" idea again. I'll report back here on the results. In the meantime, if any one reads this be aware about the only two choices you will have in a pre-trial conference: change plea or ask for trial. Unless I just had a cranky judge or they changed the rules since this blog post was written, you cannot make a motion to dismiss at a pre-trial conference.

    On a related note, the judge dismissed almost every ticket relating to lack of insurance or a drivers license as long as the person showed that they now had it.

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  7. This basically tells him or her that you don't want to change your plea just yet, but that you'd like to hear what the magistrate would do if you did. If he or she is nice, then they'll usually give you this information. lawyer for traffic ticket

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