If you’ve ever been ticketed for speeding or running a red light, you already know that the fine you pay may only be the beginning of your cost.
If it’s your second offense, that mistake may very well drain a whopping $700 out of your pocket over the next three years. That’s because, on average, a driver’s insurance premiums can increase by 25 percent after a second violation.
Most traffic courts rely on the fact that nine out of 10 drivers will just pay their tickets and move on. Established to expedite cases quickly and efficiently, traffic courts serve as vital sources of revenue for many counties.
Their desire to get you in and out can work in your favor when fighting a ticket. Attorneys who specialize in traffic court cases have very high dismissal rates based simply on technicalities. In many cases, with a little effort and research you can obtain the same results.
Auto clubs and insurers are unlikely to publicly give drivers tips for beating tickets in court, but there are a number of things you can do on your own to keep your tickets off your driving record.
Alex Carroll, author of “Beat the Cops: the Guide to Fighting Your Traffic Ticket and Winning,” says that challenging a ticket is one of the easiest things a person can do in the legal system. Carroll runs a Web site that gives people information they can use to fight their tickets. As a former courier that was “basically paid to speed,” he has beaten eight out of 10 of his tickets.
Those who have successfully beaten a traffic citation all agree that one should never immediately pay the fine — it’s an automatic admission of guilt. Even those who are honest about their guilt will find that many counties offer special pleas for first-time offenders that will keep the violation off the driving record under probational conditions that can often include driving school.
Aaron Quinn, communications director for the National Motorists Association, says that his organization pushes for better speed limits and fair enforcement practices. He says the organization played a role in the repeal of the 55-mph national maximum speed limit in 1995 and sells the “Guerilla Ticket Fighter,” a tape that shows drivers how to fight their tickets.
“Never plead guilty or no contest, especially if it’s your first ticket. If you have a clean driving record, your chances of keeping it off your record are much better,” says Quinn.
If that’s not an option, you’ll need to learn a little bit more about the legal process. Carroll recommends going to the courthouse to file a discovery motion or a public records request. You can check the ticketing officer’s notes, calibration records for radar guns and verify that all data was recorded correctly.
“Many times, one of those documents turns up out-of-date, doesn’t exist or is inaccurate and you end up winning by default because they don’t have their paperwork together,” says Carroll.
Scott McCoy, a driver from northern California, recently beat a ticket by filing motions until he found erroneous paperwork.
If all the paperwork is in order, offenders can then attempt to speak with the assistant district attorney and state their reasons why they should reconsider the charges. Carroll says that many people are successful by simply contesting their ticket through the mail (also known as “trial by declaration”) with a detailed and well-thought-out defense. Defendants can have an advantage with this method because, unless the officer submits his or her own written rebuttal, it’s a one-sided argument.
“Very few people fight their tickets with the trial by declaration option. Unless it’s a kangaroo court, the judge will usually drop it if you make a coherent argument,” says Carroll.
When faced with a court date, try to delay or postpone the trial as long as possible. In many courts, it’s not uncommon to have a court date three months after the offense occurred. At the very least, a postponement in the trial is postponing a conviction and the resulting increase in insurance premiums. Quinn also recommends asking for a trial by jury because it places a further burden on crowded courts and increases the chances of dismissal.
Another advantage in postponing the court date is that it can significantly increase the odds that the officer will not be present during the trial. Because a defendant always has the constitutional right to question their accuser, most judges will drop the case if the officer does not show or submit testimony.
“You always want to make it more difficult for them to show up,” Carroll says. “Never go with the date on your ticket. That’s usually a ‘gang date’ for the officer. If you schedule for an extension that falls on a different day, chances are they aren’t going to come in on their day off just for you.”
Contrary to popular belief, Carroll says that camera-issued tickets are often the easiest to beat because a defendant has a constitutional right to question their accuser. Courthouses will rarely go through the trouble of bringing the video or picture to court, and even if they do, there is no human subject to question other than the officer who viewed the it.
“The minute he opens his mouth, you just object because it’s hearsay and the ticket will be dropped,” Carroll says. “Most people just don’t have the courage to do this though. That’s why some of these cities are making millions of dollars per camera. They know you’re not going to do that.”
While traffic cameras are becoming more common, their legality is being debated in courtrooms around the country.
Not all agree that people can fight their own tickets. In some states such as Texas, California and Florida, attorneys have thriving businesses fighting traffic citations and aren’t eager to encourage do-it-yourselfers. While he uses some of the same tactics, California attorney Stanley Alari insists that motorists don’t stand a chance in court on their own. Alari goes by the moniker “Stan the Radar Man” and has beaten thousands of tickets in California court rooms.
“Cases often get dismissed because police officers are often not prepared and don’t bring the necessary evidence to convict somebody. Still, a defendant needs a competent traffic ticket lawyer or he’s going to lose,” says Alari.
While one can always hire a lawyer, the fees aren’t always worth it for minor violations, especially when it’s a first offense. Texas, California, Florida and New York have thriving traffic ticket law businesses with low fees, but in most states, legal representation for minor violations isn’t cost effective. With a little homework and time, many traffic citations can be overcome and whether you’re guilty or not, you probably don’t want to pay increased insurance premiums if you don’t have to.
“It’s not really hard to do,” Carroll says. “It just takes some work. You need to put in a little time. If you’re making millions of bucks, it isn’t worth it. But for the average person, it’s worth your time because those insurance surcharges are pretty costly.”