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What to Expect in Traffic Court

I 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 [3].

Do you have any advice?

(Photo: nostri-imago [4])