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What to Expect in Traffic Court

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Metro Transit PoliceI had the great pleasure of going to traffic court this morning. Yay!

I was there to contest a ticket I received for making an improper left turn through a red light. The ticket was for $90 and I’m unsure how many points it would’ve been, but an improper turn costs 1 point and failure to stop at a red is 2 points. Do I get both? Or just the worse of the two? I wasn’t sure but I knew points usually meant my insurance would go up and I wanted to avoid that at all costs.

Everything contained in this article is based on my experience in a Maryland courtroom and with Maryland procedures, specifically Howard County District Court. The process and rules may be different in your jurisdiction.

Traffic Court Process

The process is very simple. The court schedules cases on a docket, which is a list of all the cases it will hear, every hour. You should appear in court about fifteen minutes to half an hour before your session is scheduled to begin.

The judge calls your name, you announce you’re present and walk up to the defendent’s table. The judge will read you the charge against you and ask how you plead. Here’s where you have three options:

  1. Not Guilty – If the officer isn’t there, there is no one to testify against you, so always plead Not Guilty. The officer, if present, will be standing there at the other table, so it’s clear when they’re not there. If you plead Not Guilty there will be a brief trial.
  2. Guilty – You’re admitting that you are guilty and are now at the mercy of the judge. If it’s a minor offense and you have a clean record, you will often get Probation Before Judgement (more on that below).
  3. Guilty with Explanation – You are admitting that you are guilty and are now at the mercy of the judge, but this time you can give a limited explanation. Unless it’s a medical emergency, and you’ll need proof of that like a signed letter, chances are you are out of luck.

Court Strategy

When you go to court, you’re hoping that the other officer doesn’t show up. When I was there, I was the sixth or seventh case. The first case up was a young woman doing 20+ over the speed limit and she was the only one to luck out, her officer didn’t show. For every case I saw after that, an officer was present. The cases are scheduled so that an officer can be present for a large number of their contested tickets.

The officer that issued my ticket had about twenty or twenty five cases that day, he wasn’t missing it. He was a county police officer. The ones with only one or two cases that day were all state troopers.

Outside of a Not Guilty because the officer didn’t show, you’re hoping mostly for leniency and Probation Before Judgement. Probation Before Judgement is where the judge will not enter a guilty disposition/ruling, will still fine you (or reduce the fine), and not assess points. It’s your one free pass every three years. If your record is clean and the offense is minor, judges will usually grant you this.

The Trial

It sounds fancy but trial is very informal in a traffic court. The officer will tell his story, you will be given the opportunity to ask questions, then you tell your side of the story. Then the judge renders a decision.

In my case, the offense occurred near the end of January, and I believe my officer’s memory was questionable. However, I wasn’t any better. I had made a left turn when the light was yellow and I believe the officer made a judgment call about my turning on red. I remembered that he was in the opposing lane of traffic and didn’t have a clear line of sight to the light. Unfortunately, he testified that he was behind me, which threw me for a loop, and I couldn’t be certain, so I didn’t contest that (mistake). He also called my car a Toyota GT, rather than Toyota Celica (GT), I probably should’ve contested that (another mistake). My only defense was that the intersection was monitored by a red light camera and I wasn’t issued a ticket, which didn’t fly in court.

In the end, the verdict was Probational Before Judgement, my fine was reduced from $90 to $45.00, and no points were assessed. After court fees of $25.50, I paid $70.50. I saved $19.50, 1-3 points, and the whole process took less than an hour – I chalk that up as a win.

There was one case where a driver was going 105 in a posted 65 MPH speed zone, he had no explanation and was hoping the officer wouldn’t show up. When asked if he had any prior incidents, he said he couldn’t remember when he actually had one just last year. He had no strategy beyond hoping the officer wasn’t there, then wasn’t truthful with the judge, and so he had to pay is $500+, 5 point fine. The judge even stated that he failed to be “candid” with the court, so always tell the truth because they already know the answer.

Lessons Learned

Always contest. While I was nervous being in court (first time ever), I felt it was a great learning experience. Law is very much about technicalities and preparation, so use all of it to your advantage. Also, it’s important to ask the officer questions or contest what he testifies. I should’ve recognized he was reading from a script and not recalling the events. That was my mistake and I’ll know for next time, fortunately it was a small mistake.

The impact on your insurance may be minor. After the ticket, I emailed my insurance agent and asked about the impact on my insurance. She told me that chances are the underwriters wouldn’t even know about it unless I made a major change to my policy and even then, it was only a few dollars more per six months (< $10). That's one of the benefits of dealing with a local agent rather than a faceless insurance corporation.

Do you have any advice?

(Photo: nostri-imago)

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53 Responses to “What to Expect in Traffic Court”

  1. Dave says:

    Great article. Although I’ve been fortunate and haven’t gotten any tickets with points in a long time, I had a few speeding tickets when I was younger. I always wished I went and fought them, but I was always too afraid to do it. My brother got 4 or 5 speeding tickets when he first got his license, and he fought every single one of them. Typically he got a higher fine, but no points.

    In NJ, you can actually meet with the prosecutor beforehand and strike a deal. Typically it means that you plead guilty and take a larger fine, but don’t get any points.

  2. 3rd lesson: Don’t drive 105 in a 65 and expect the officer not to show. I’m guessing he’ll shuffle his schedule a bit to accomodate your case.

    I’ve been lucky to only get busted once (6 years ago), for a violation of my state’s “move over” law. I apparently didn’t move over far enough, and the law had been enacted during a time period when I was living out of the state, so I wasn’t really aware of the law. However, ignorance is not excuse, and the trooper could have busted me for speeding at the same time, so I didn’t bother to contest it.

    It has had the desired effect, from a societal viewpoint. I’m one of the 5% of people who move into the left lane when there is a car on the shoulder :)

  3. Geoff says:

    In Massachusetts, the officer does not need to be there, just a representative, so usually an officer takes on all of the cases from that precinct or town’s police station. Seems unconstitutional to me, but not much I can do about it.

    The process is simpler though, they call you up, the representative or officer tells their story, you tell your own, the magistrate can ask questions, then he makes a ruling. You can than appeal.

    I had a representative tell their story, which was really short, I told mine, and then the magistrate basicly did the officer’s job saying how wrong I was, and basically filled in more info than was provided. You’re still better off trying to fight the ticket though.

    • dilbert69 says:

      There is something you can do about it. You can volunteer to be a test case and ask the ACLU to help you. It might not work, but it’s better than complacency.

    • Nate says:

      “In Massachusetts, the officer does not need to be there, just a representative, so usually an officer takes on all of the cases from that precinct or town’s police station. Seems unconstitutional to me, but not much I can do about it.”

      An officer can send a representative to court, just as a defendant has the right to do the same. (You don’t really HAVE to go to traffic court – you can send a lawyer to represent you.) However, federal law states that the court must allow you to face your accuser if you ask. It’s only illegal if you asked and they denied you the opportunity.

  4. It’s not just “contesting” what the officer says. You can (and should) “object” if the testimony is improper. Did the officer lay a proper foundation?

    You can also challenge the officer’s memory. “What did you have for breakfast that day? … What was I wearing? … What other traffic stops did you make that day? …”

  5. aa says:

    Hire a traffic lawyer or just say not guilty. They won’t find time to have another trial, and the case will be dismissed.

  6. I got my first moving violation a little over two years ago. The first one in 32 years of driving. At the time I was upset, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but be thankful that I’d gone so long without it ever happening.

    It was kind of weird; I was driving to church with my family (sounds like bad comedy) on a road I know well. What I didn’t realize was that the speed limit had been lowered from 45 to 35, and I got tagged going up a hill at 52 by a cohort of six cops who were handing out speeding tickets like they were selling tickets to the policemans ball.

    I thought about fighting it based on the change in the speed limit, the fact that I was going up a steep hill (35 isn’t practical up this one) and my clean record. But I thought about the many times I richly deserved to be ticketed but no cop was around, and decided to view it as a life’s lesson. Based on your experience Jim, I now believe that was a mistake and I should have contested it.

    With all of the concern about saving money, we all need to slow down a bit to avoid traffic violations. You can get hit twice, on the citation itself, and later, through higher insurance premiums. My ticket was $125, but no insurance surcharge fortunately.

  7. Michele says:

    Interesting experience eh?

    I am a Clerk in a small town Mayor’s Court, but the rules are pretty standard. We use No contest, and tho many courts charge more for a no Contest plea, we don’t.

    I agree that you should always fight a traffic ticket. Here in Ohio, if you come to court there is likely a chance you will walk out with no points or a reduced charge, and it usually involves paying more. Our fines to waive tickets are always cheaper than coming to court, but the court costs are the same regardless of whether you waive it or come to court. If someone pleads not guilty, its bumped to Muni Court and goes to a full blown trial.

    Calling them “court” costs is confusing to people, because they assume that only covers walking into the courtroom. But what it really means is paying fees to the BMV to maintain driving records, all sorts of fees the state throws in to fund prevention programs, victim restitution, etc., plus local fees to pay folks such as myself to process that waived ticket.

    About telling the truth, absolutely always tell the truth. Even when you are pulled over, and in court, the officer can see EVERY violation you have ever received, even the serious Juvenile violations. If you had a DUI that was reduced to Reckless Op – it says that on their report, even 20 years later, and most communities have computers right in their cars these days and can pull up your record without having dispatch do it. Just because the points go off, but the violation is still there.

    And the other little tricks, memory, calibration and such like, our officers write reports of what was said, when the radar was calibrated (they do it every day before they leave in the cruiser), and officers not showing, the policy is that your court date is rescheduled so that the officer can be there. Bottom line is, all those little tricks that you hear about the court knows all about, and it usually does not work.

    • Jim says:

      Thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise!

    • Ben says:

      That’s ridiculous that if the officer doesn’t show up that your court date gets rescheduled. It’s already taking up your time by say taking a day off from work, to come to court. For the officer to not show up is just absurd. Now you’re going to have to use up another personal day from work. If the officer doesn’t show up that’s his own fault and should not make you have to come again.

      • Demenz says:

        SAY IT LOUDER!!! :D The “justice” system does not care about us or our families wather or not OUR CHILDREN EAT OR YOU CAN MAKE IT TO WORK, it’s all A SCAM and should be REPRIMANDED AND POLICED IT’S OWN SELF!!!

  8. Mike says:

    Make sure dates and block numbers are correct. I had one dismissed because the date on the ticket was wrong.

  9. Jon says:

    I got ticket for not having a front license plate. My car didn’t have anywhere to put one as it was purchased in Florida where they don’t require a front plate. I got PBJ and had to drill holes in my bumper. Meh.

  10. MoneyEnergy says:

    pretty interesting, I haven’t been inside a court or trial like this. Crazy that they get so backed up that trials have to rely so much on memory – seems that’s just asking for complications. So another good point about preparation: when something happens, an accident, or ticket, write your notes about it right away, maybe take a photo? or even record your thoughts onto tape or something – at least to help remember later on. Maybe that would at least help the defendant if the trial won’t happen for another 6 months.

    • seathelights says:

      While on a police ride-along several years ago, we were on a traffic stop. After the officer had written the ticket and returned to his car, he took a few minutes to make notes on the back of his copy of the ticket. When I asked him about it, he said it was to refresh his memory if he had to go to court.

      I would recommend you do the same thing.

  11. Yana says:

    I got a speeding ticket last year, my only such ticket ever. The ticket stated that I was going 38 mph in a 25 mph zone. Since I found out that the speed limit was actually 30, I wondered whether the officer ought to be giving tickets if he did not know the speed limit. This was in California, and I used ticketassasin.com to learn how to contest the ticket by mail. Great info on that website. I submitted the $167 fine along with my written protest. The matter was dropped and my money was refunded. I didn’t have to leave town to go to court, which is what I would have had to do if I didn’t have this wonderful resource called the internet that saves me money, time and aggravation.

    You should absolutely contest traffic tickets. I also enjoyed learning more about the system, as far as laws and motivation behind giving tickets when there is hardly a legitimate reason to do so.

  12. I don’t get THAT many tickets, but I did once hire a lawyer to get me off on a ticket that I felt was unfairly given. That cost me $300, but saved some points. However, the actual reason that I was given the ticket was never contested – the way traffic lawyers work is to submit so much paperwork that the county clerk can’t keep up, and the charges are dropped as a matter of protocol.

    However, I should have learned my lesson and stuck with the lawyer. The next time I got a ticket, which I actually did deserve, I simply paid the fine. It added a number of points to my record, so my insurance jumped way up – well over $600 a year.

  13. mbhunter says:

    Admit nothing to the officer when you’re pulled over. This is the best time in the world to shut up. Anything you say can be used against you:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8z7NC5sgik

    • Scott says:

      Better yet, turn on your cell phone and record your conversation. Just let the officer know you’re recording everything he/she says.

      • Demenz says:

        They will tell you to turn off your phone if you tell them theyre being recorded, done that many times… with video too…

  14. CuriousAG says:

    Hope for the best, nice to hear you sharing your experience :)

    I happened to post an article about traffic tickets & fines early this week, take a look:

    http://letsbecurious.blogspot.com/2009/06/tips-for-saving-traffic-fines-handling.html

  15. Scott says:

    I’ve lived in four states and been licensed in three of them in the past ten years. And I’ve had the unfortunate circumstance of getting a speeding ticket in all of those but Maryland (Jim filled in that blank). Here’s what I’ve experienced:

    North Carolina: They have a PFJ (Prayer for Judgement) that is similar to the PFB Jim describes. HOWEVER, every lawyer I’ve ever talked to in NC has highly advised against using your PFJ for a speeding ticket, instead opting to save it “just in case” you fall into something worse (like you accidentally hit and kill someone) because you’re really going to need it then to cover your arse and wish you didn’t use it on a silly $100 speeding ticket. I know it depends on your personal situation but it’s something to consider – be careful with your one “get out of jail free” card. Also, from my own experience NC did not require the officer to be present and I personally didn’t even go before a judge, but instead the DA just pulled up my citation and I negotiated a deal (perhaps I could have declined the deal and taken a full trial, I don’t know).

    Pennsylvania: One word… UNCONSTITUTIONAL. Only state where I know of where you pay your fine BEFORE going to trial and then have to fight to get your money back. They wouldn’t even give me a court date until I paid. Absolutely ridiculous. Not to mention the officer stating that he didn’t need to be in his uniform to pull me over, that he “could pull me over in his underwear” if he needed to. REAL professional job they got going on in northwest PA.

    Virginia: I’ve gotten two tickets here (so far, haha). First one, they scheduled the court date for when I was out of the country so I hired a lawyer to fill in for me. He got my 17-over ticket reduced to defective equipment, which was complete BS – my car was ONE year old and there was NO defective equipment anywhere on it. Someone really needs to do an expose on the shady automotive shops that do their sleazy “speedometer tests” (I don’t think they even turned the car on and then gave me an official report stating my speedometer was over 10 mph off when driving 55).

    Second ticket, I went to court… and what a sight it was. Show up at 8:00 AM with 120+ other people. I watch as the judge shows leniency to one ridiculous case after another (mostly DUIs and fake plates). Then we finally get to the speeding tickets after lunch and his whole tone changes. The only guy who got off was a 91-year-old man who got a ticket going 10 over or something like that. The rest of us meanwhile all helped to pay the salary’s of the city’s finest. I don’t know why I even bothered to open my mouth because the judge didn’t hear a word I said. Morale of the story?

    Don’t dress up for court. In fact, do the oppostie. I was advised later by a guy who’s lived here his whole life that I shouldn’t have worn a suit to court. He said the judge is looking to help people out if he can and make himself feel good. When a bum rolls in, the judge figures he needs a break and gives him one. When I roll in looking all clean cut, he figures I should know better and starts seeing dollar signs. I should have dressed for sympathy – lesson learned. Needless to say, that judge did forever lose my vote.

  16. Patrick says:

    Great article Jim. Getting a ticket can always be frustrating and knowing the right way to approach it is essential. Several of my family members when to court to have their tickets reduced and there has never been an instance where it wasn’t. As long as you are not a constant offender, it’s worth it to make the trip to court.

  17. eric says:

    sounds like my experience a few years ago. hopefully no more though!

  18. nickel says:

    I got a ticket but was able to plead “nolo contendre” (no contest) by mail. This sounds similar to your Probation Before Judgment. I agreed not to contest the charge without admitting guilt. I paid the fine, but got no points. Around here, this can only be done every three or five years.

  19. thomas says:

    I bet that officer is proud of the job he’s doing. I’m guessing when he decided to grow up and be an officer it was to save lives and lock up bad guys. Now he writes chicken s— tickets for a living. Big hero.

    • Andrew says:

      Writing tickets does save lives if it encourages people to drive more cautiously, and it is the most dangerous thing a police officer does.

    • michele says:

      I have to disagree with Thomas’ comments about officers writing tickets, in the past two years our local area has suffered the loss of three officers shot by persons who were pulled over for “routine” traffic stops. One was shot in the head execution style while he walked back to his cruiser by a medical student who panicked because he was going to lose his license due to too many points. We had an officer hit with a car by someone who did not slow down or move over and clipped him as he walked from the stopped car to the cruiser.

      I cant remember if I stated in my earlier comment. It seems like a lot of folks think that speed limits are only set by the communities specifically to set speed traps. Im not saying there are not communities that take advantage of their situation, Linndale, Ohio comes to mind. But the truth is, that in Ohio as it probably is in other states, that the state of Ohio issues guidelines based on federal guidelines that communities must abide by. So basically, the state sets the speed limits in our community, not us, we just enforce them.

      There is a reason why residential areas are set at 25mph. There is a reason why there are school zones, business districts, etc. Kids running into the street, traffic pulling in and out of businesses,are all long studied and implemented, and they do frequent traffic studies as areas become more congested.

  20. Many years ago a police officer told me “90% of a cops job it traffic control”. I think that probably is true in suburban areas and probably rural as well. But if that’s true, then when we support hiring more police officers, we’re really supporting more policing of ourselves.

    • Andrew says:

      I don’t know how it is where you live, but here in Northern California I see so much terrible driving that more “policing ourselves” sounds like a good idea to me.

  21. Best strategy is not to end up in traffic court in the first place. That said, you may want to ask the prosecuter to drop the charges in exchange for a charitable contribution– no conviction, no points, no insurance increase, and about $100 to a worthy cause like special needs kids.

  22. Ming says:

    I live in Michigan and I got a speeding ticket for 15 over. I went to court and the cop gave me a deal- plead guilty and paid a reduced fine and no points on driving record. I agreed. While standing in line to pay my fine, a man behind told me that the cop had tricked me. He said in Michigan, there are TWO records: driving record and insurance record. He said the cop meant no points on driving record but the incident will still go on my insurance record resulting in higher premiums. He said that’s the reason he was there to fight it. I thought this guy was crazy. But 2 months later, sure enough, my insurance went up. So the lesson here is that when bargaining with the cop, make sure you specify NO POINTS on BOTH driving and insurance record meaning that insurance will not go up. Have the cop write it down on the ticket and tell the judge AGAIN the plead bargain when you plead. Keep all the paperwork in a file so you can go back and fight it if your insurance does go up.

    • Yana says:

      That cop really screwed you, Ming. You should never admit guilt, which reminds me of the key question that policemen ask you when they stop you – “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Your answer must always be “No”, and it is always the truth, because you never know their real motivation, even if you are doing something that is illegal. If you claim to know why you were pulled over, you have already lost the game by admitting some sort of guilt. Plus, you may have been speeding and said that is why you were pulled over, but his reason might have been that your tail light was burned out. Then you are really in trouble, because a tail light out is a fix-it ticket, which does you no harm if you get it fixed.

    • Jim says:

      That’s ridiculous, that cop was just being a jerk to be a jerk.

    • Ming says:

      Yea it sucks. On the same day while i was waiting in court, another cop gathered about 15 people in a room and asked them to pay a higher fine in order to not have points on their records.

  23. TheStrawman says:

    Informative, yet grossly incomplete. Lets think outside the box and explore yet another venue rarely taken. How about entering no plea? Under no circumstances should you enter a plea. By entering a plea you grant the court jurisdiction over you (which they do not have), and consequently giving the court your permission to prosecute yourself. Courts are corporate entities and they can only contract with other corporate entities. When the judge calls your name, you reply “I do not plead to courts of contract.” Be firm yet calm and speak clearly and loudly, “I do not plead to courts of contract.” You see the court needs to establish jurisdiction over you before they can proceed. They will try to do this by asking your name, asking other questions, and giving you instructions. DO NOT entertain any of these futile attempts or comply to any of their demands, “Step to the front of the room sir”, “Take a seat sir”, “Put your hands out of your pockets” are some common examples. Once you answer their questions or comply to any of their demands you are entering into their jurisdiction. You are a broken record that only can play the same tune “I do not plead to courts of contract”. Another tactic the courts employ to get you to contract with them is by playing the namegame. When the judge calls your name he is actually calling your corporately coloured juristic name, that is your name in all capital letters. Look at your ticket/citation, your name will be in all caps, look at your birth certificate, your drivers license, your Social Security card, your passport, your credit cards. How did this perversion of our name happen? When a person is born the doctor is required by law to send your name to the State, the State in turn will send your parents a Certificate of Live Birth in the mail after they change your name to all caps. This juristic name is a corporate entity created for the sole purpose of making it possible for the courts to contract with you. Do not allow them to create a joinder between you and your juristic name.

    • Andrew says:

      Let’s do an experiment. You steal a car, drive it to the police station, and confess. When brought to court, insist the court has no jurisdiction. I’m sure they’ll just let you go. ;)

  24. Andrew says:

    This is utter tripe. Where did you pull this out of?

  25. The Strawman–”By entering a plea you grant the court jurisdiction over you (which they do not have), and consequently giving the court your permission to prosecute yourself.”

    That can’t possibly be right. A court has jurisdiction over you by virtue of a violation ocurring in their district. You’re going to have to cite the legal authority for what you’re claiming.


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