Defeating traffic tickets

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Image: Traffic Cop https://www.flickr.com/photos/jayphagan/ CC by 2.0

One of the ways local authorities try to raise money is by increasing the number of crimes that they can penalize you for – and swell their coffers in the process. You know, speed limits weren’t conjured up by the Founding Fathers; they were nationalized by President Jimmy Carter out of safety concerns and adopted by local authorities who saw dollar signs.

Now, every year, cities and towns raise billions through automated speed traps, parking tickets, and the fleecing of weekend boaters with petty fines. Seattle raises more than $21.5 million from parking tickets. Preying on the middle class in the name of law-enforcement is a booming industry, so it’s good to know how to fight back.

Of course, the best thing you can do is to drive safely and avoid the cops in the first place. But remember, most police officers wait at a limited number of spots to catch speeders. They often work in pairs, so if you see one cop detaining a motorist, assume that his partner is nearby. They also have set routes they patrol to issue parking tickets. Figuring out where they are and steering clear will help avoid being ticketed.

If you are stopped, most policemen start with a standard line, “Do you know why I stopped you?” or “Do you know how fast you were going?”

Now in theory they probably should have read you your rights first. But that doesn’t mean a judge will throw out a stupid remark you make next. Don’t be overly confrontational or curt. Bite your tongue and be short but polite. Cooperate with everything the officer asks you to do. Don’t tell any rambling stories in an attempt to make excuses for yourself. From the minute you’re pulled over, you want to anticipate how a traffic court judge will view your case. If you act rude or annoyed, the officer will make a note of it and the judge will be less willing to let you off the hook.

In addition to snide comments, a lot of people make stupid remarks, admitting to running red lights, speeding through a school zone, or something else the policemen was unaware of. So up front you don’t answer his question and instead counter with, “I’m not sure” or “Is something wrong?” It’s his job to tell you why he stopped you; it isn’t your job to hang yourself.

Do not admit that you were speeding. Let him write the ticket and then sign – saying only that you were there and not admitting to guilt. Chances are you’ll need to sign, as failure to do so will mean you are taken directly to court – perhaps to wait in a cell for the judge to get around to dealing with you.

The next thing to remember is that traffic cops — and courts — depend on everyone going right along with their dirty work. If everyone protested tickets, the system would clog to a standstill. Instead, most people give in, and we are all hassled with speed limits that have little to do with safety and a lot to do with putting money into city and state coffers — another tax if you will.

Play dumb

A great way to throw off the officer is to pretend that you don’t know any of this. Act like you’re completely naïve when it comes to speeding tickets. Ask him if there’s a way to pay the ticket by mail. Inquire as to whether you can write a check or pay with cash. If it’s your first speeding ticket, tell him that. Pretend you aren’t savvy enough to consider taking him to court. If you give off the right impression, the officer should let his guard down – and most importantly, stop taking notes. Fewer notes mean less evidence when you surprise the cop and take him to traffic court. If you act belligerently, the policeman will make sure he gets down every little detail.

Make your own notes

As you charm the officer, you should be silently scanning the area, taking in everything. Record the police officer’s name and license plate number in your mind, and jot them down afterwards. Observe your surroundings closely. What are the weather conditions? How much traffic is on the road? Where was the officer sitting? What was his vantage point on the road? Think backwards too. Try to remember exactly how you were driving – what lane you were in, how fast you were going, what direction you were headed. If you know more about your situation than the officer, you’re in good shape.

Check the ticket closely as well. There are two types of mistakes that you need to look out for. The first is errors related to your offense. This would entail the cop writing that you passed on the right when in fact you passed on the left, for example. Immediately contest these errors with the officer. If you don’t, it will be your word versus the officer’s word in court – and the police will win that fight every time.

The second is errors related to your surroundings. This is when the officer writes down the incorrect street name or records the wrong license plate number. Silently ignore these mistakes. After the officer leaves, make sure you get evidence that the information is wrong. Take a picture from your pulled-over car of the closest street sign, for example. This will help you enormously during the trial.

You will then have the choice of paying the ticket through the mail or going to court. If you want to bring an end to the ordeal, you will (like most people) pay the ticket. However, if you take the time to fight the ticket in court, the odds are in your favor. There’s a good chance the officer won’t even show up for the hearing, in which case you’ll win automatically.

Read the small print

If you see a traffic ticket or other fine or document that says it is “sworn and subscribed” (or which the law says must be sworn and subscribed), that means it isn’t valid unless someone has administered an oath and has actually sworn that you are guilty. In such a case, you can argue that the document was not properly sworn and subscribed and is therefore invalid.

This tactic might work if you have a judge who takes the law literally, but not all do. So don’t bank on it.

If you bring up this argument, the judge might then try to “one up” you by having the person who issued the speeding ticket or other document come in and swear under oath that you are guilty. At that point, you might be in a my-word-against-his-word situation, and that’s a tough sell contesting the police.

No less than five days after receiving your ticket, file a Request for Discovery. This is a legal request guaranteeing that you’ll be able to see the evidence that the officer will present ahead of time. It will allow you to present your case more effectively to rebut his charges. Request for Discovery is guaranteed in criminal cases, but is not always granted in traffic court. Nevertheless, if you submit the form early enough, the judge just might grant your request. If not, when you attend your first hearing, ask the judge for an Order to Compel Discovery. Even if the judge still doesn’t cooperate, it’s a great way to show that you understand the legal system and aren’t going to back down easily.

Challenge the technology

Of the various methods of registering speed violations, the radar gun is probably the easiest to defeat in the courtroom. These devices are notorious for false readings, clocking trees as breaking the law during high winds. Too, they often can’t distinguish one car from another on a crowded road; officers take a guess as to which one is actually breaking the law.

Your next step is to request from the prosecution that you be furnished with the manual supplied with the model of radar gun used by the police. This will be key to your defense since – unlike the officer using the device who will go to the stand and swear it is never wrong – the manufacturer has to tell the truth or face possible liability suits.

That means in the manual is a list of things that may cause false readings, including high winds, heating or cooling fans, metal railings near the road, electronic equipment, etc. (Make note of what the weather/traffic/road conditions were like when you were ticketed.) You’ll also probably discover that the machine must be calibrated from time to time to keep it accurate. These facts will give you a way to create some “reasonable doubt” that you were actually breaking the law.

Be sure to check the speed recorded by the gun and what the ticket was written for. Often times a patrolman will write a ticket lower than the radar gun registers on the off chance it is calibrated slightly high. In effect, this is an admission that it may be, or could be, wrong.

There is generally a requirement that the machine is officially checked and approved for operation. Make sue that the permission was current at the time – if it wasn’t, you should walk.

You can also ask if the officer had a traffic control order for the area you were ticketed in; often he will not and you may be able to create a bit of confusion over this fact (though if you were on an open road, the normal speed limit will probably apply).

You’ll need to plead in court – either “guilty,” “no contest,” or “not guilty.” Oftentimes, the judge will go to great lengths to make a “not guilty” plea sound like the worst of your options. Don’t feel intimidated. Remember, you’re innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around. Confidently tell him or her that you plead “not guilty.”

Start marshaling your evidence immediately. Write down a full record of all the information you recorded and develop any photographs you may have taken.

Make sure you also research the traffic court rules in your state and locality. In Massachusetts, where speed limits are low and fees are high, the police officer doesn’t have to attend the trial and can just send a representative. In other states, which are more forgiving to speeders, the officer himself must attend. Details like this are crucial for you to know.

Once the trial begins, your first golden ticket lies with the officer. There’s a good chance that a cop won’t make it to the trial. Many officers have several appointments in traffic court per day and can’t possibly attend every one of them. If the officer isn’t present (or doesn’t send a representative) the judge may dismiss the case and throw out the ticket. But this isn’t guaranteed by any means. If the judge doesn’t dismiss, request that the case be thrown out because the officer isn’t present. If the judge shoots this down as well, a new date for the trial will be set.

When the full trial actually occurs, the officer will first be allowed to present his evidence. You can then ask questions. Use this time to try to poke holes in his case. Make sure you have your notes in front of you. You’ll have a tremendous advantage here if your Request for Discovery was successful, since you’ll already know the case he’ll be presenting.

Remember, many traffic court trials take place weeks or months after the ticket was issued – and officers deal with plenty of traffic incidents. If you stopped him from taking good notes, chances are his memory will be a little foggy. This is when those notes you took can be a serious advantage. Study them, memorize them, and use them.

When presenting your evidence, make sure you have an outline of your talking points (what you will say) and that everything is well-organized. Be articulate, but watch what you say. Remember, your goal is not to establish your innocence. Your goal is to raise doubts so you can’t be definitively proven guilty. And remember not to admit guilt! “I did run that red light, but only because I couldn’t stop in time” is an admission of guilt. Only present evidence that clouds the case against you.

You should be able to get most speeding fines rescinded on your own if you are willing to go through the process. If it’s a stiff fine, consult with an attorney. If it’ll seriously affect your insurance premiums, it might help to voluntarily attend a driving course.

Tiny Squirrel

The Squirrel says: As an added measure of protection against speeding tickets, you might consider joining a group called the National Motorists Association (800-882-2785; www.motorists.org). The Motorists Association has information on the latest ticket-fighting techniques, including a comprehensive Legal Defense Kit, and can provide you with referrals to traffic attorneys in your area. The group promises that “If, as a continuing member after one year of membership, you receive a speeding ticket and plead not guilty but lose in court, NMA will pay your fine up to $300.” Annual dues are a bargain at $35/Individual, $45/Family.