Not Guilty!10 tips on how to fight a traffic ticket
To beat a traffic ticket, you needn't be a close friend of the governor or have attended kindergarten with the chief of police. In fact, it's likely neither of those will help as much as this simple tip: Plead not guilty.
The result of pleading not guilty is always better than just mailing in the fine. If you plead not guilty, the worst that can happen is that you get hit with court costs and waste some time. The judge can't add more points to the violation or require your insurance company to raise your rates even higher.
You'll rarely completely beat a ticket. More often you'll wind up with some sort of probation, such as being required to attend traffic school. Sometimes, you'll be offered a plea bargain such as half the points and half the fine. Regardless, you come out ahead.
Deciding to fight a traffic ticket is a personal decision. Maybe you're truly not guilty. Maybe you feel that most traffic tickets are an unauthorized tax by cash-strapped governments and have nothing to do with traffic safety. Maybe you'd like to exercise your right to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
Here are a few tips, most of which I learned the hard way, on how to fight traffic tickets. In addition, there's a lot of good-and some bad-information out there: Start with the National Motorists Association (www.motorists.org) and Nolo Press (nolopress.com).
Pick the Best Time
The best time to fight a traffic ticket is when you have a clean driving record. Contesting every ticket is the second-best way to keep your record clean. The system is harsh on multiple offenders. If you've just earned your third ticket this year, get a lawyer.
Start with the Stop
Assume the blue lights are for you. Signal and pull smoothly to a stop in a location that's safe for the officer. Turn off your engine, engage the hazard flashers, roll down the window and turn on the dome light. Other than placing your wallet on your lap, do not go rooting around for registration and insurance cards or try to hide your radar detector. When the officer approaches, keep your hands in sight. Other than, "Good morning," and, "Hello," don't speak until spoken to. When the officer requests documents, ask permission before moving. "My registration is in the glovebox, may I look in there?" All this is designed to make you look like a good citizen and put the officer at ease.
Do Not Admit Guilt
Next, do not admit guilt to the officer. Many will write on the ticket that you admitted guilt. If the officer asks, "Do you know how fast you were going?" tell him you were focused on traffic or obeying the "Watch for falling rocks" or deer crossing warning signs, or some other polite, truthful but non-committal answer.
Know The Goal
Your primary goal is to keep your driving record as clean as possible. If you must pay a fine or take traffic school to avoid or reduce the points on your license, do it. Think of it as a "traffic tax."
Delay for Luck
If you can delay your court date, there's an outside chance that the officer won't be present and the judge will be forced to dismiss the case. If it's a routine offense, such as 64 in a 55, there's a slight chance this tactic may work. If you were going 50 in a school zone, get a lawyer.
Check the jurisdiction's website or phone the court to see if traffic school is routinely offered. If so, take it.
Courthouses and magistrate's offices are notoriously difficult to find. Know where you're going and give yourself enough time to find a parking place and the correct courtroom.
Show the judge respect with your choice of clothing and you'll separate yourself from 98 percent of your fellow scofflaws. You're not going on a date: No $1,000 suits or cleavage.
The judge will attempt to frighten you away from pleading not guilty. If you lose your nerve and plead "guilty with an explanation" or "nolo contender," you've just wasted your time and the judge's. Have some reasonable explanation why you think you're not guilty that doesn't make either you or the officer look like an idiot or a liar. If the officer is present, it's better to just go ahead and ask the judge if he'll reduce or eliminate points than to say you were looking at the tachometer rather than the speedometer. Know this: The judge has to regularly work with the cop. It's extremely unlikely he'll allow the officer to be made to look stupid.
If you're offered a pre-trial hearing, go with it. The harried assistant prosecutor will most likely cut the points and fine in half just to get rid of you. Counter by offering to pay the entire fine if the offense is reduced to a non-moving violation. If you're offered traffic school, a reduced charge, or deferred adjudication, which is kind of like probation, take it. Once, I received deferred adjudication from a small-town, out-of-state judge: He removed the violation from my record but required me to pay the full fine and a small bit extra for court costs. It was a good deal for both me and the city.
Phone the court and see if they offer traffic school or will otherwise reduce the points. If not, tell them you don't have access to a list of local lawyers who handle traffic cases and ask if they would recommend one. They will, of course, say that they can't do that. Then you can ask if they'll open the Yellow Pages and give you a few names. Most likely, they won't touch the phone book but will instead provide you with the names of the best traffic attorneys (or the judge's fishing buddies).
Of course the best way to avoid a traffic ticket is to listen to the Chris Rock's educational video "How Not To Get Your A__ Kicked By The Police." Number 1 is "Obey The Law."
Mac Demere is a writer, vehicle tester and race driver who competed in the NASCAR Southwest Tour and Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.
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