Not every traffic ticket case is open and shut. The vast majority of drivers simply pay their ticket rather than contesting it, believing that it is not worth their time. However, the consequences of a traffic ticket may be more serious than you realize. You could face a license suspension if you have previous tickets, for example, and your insurance premiums could increase. It makes sense to investigate whether you have a viable way to fight your ticket before paying it.
One common strategy in fighting a ticket is to show that you did not violate the law at issue. Each traffic rule consists of certain parts known as “elements.” Similar to a criminal defendant, a driver must have violated each element of a rule for a ticket to be valid. If they can show that the evidence does not support one or more elements, they should be able to get the case dismissed. A judge also likely will dismiss the case if the officer fails to come to court, which happens somewhat often. If you are eligible for traffic school, however, you may prefer to use this option instead of going to court and hoping that the judge or jury finds your arguments persuasive or that the officer does not show up. You may not be able to get your ticket wiped out through traffic school if you do not ask for it at the beginning of the process.
You can challenge the officer’s version of events, but this can be a difficult argument to win. Essentially, it comes down to whether the officer or the driver is telling the truth, and usually the officer wins this credibility contest. You may be able to win this type of case if witness statements from other people who saw the incident support your story, or if you can show that the officer was not in a good position to see what was happening. Photographs and diagrams might indicate that the officer’s line of sight was impeded.
The ticket itself might indicate whether the driver violated an absolute, presumed, or basic speed limit.
Sometimes a police officer needs to make a judgment call about whether a driver violated a traffic rule. This often happens when an element of the rule is that the driver did something that was “unsafe.” The definition of what is safe can be subjective, and a driver may be able to argue that their actions were safe under the circumstances. Sometimes even a speeding ticket can be challenged on this basis if the state uses a presumed rather than absolute posted speed limit. You might be able to show that your speed was safe in the situation if there was minimal traffic, the weather was clear, and you were not greatly exceeding the posted limit.
Mistakes of Fact and Mistakes of Law
If you were unaware that what you did violated the law, this usually will not get you anywhere. This is known as a mistake of law. On the other hand, a mistake of fact may be a valid defense if it was reasonable. If an object obstructed your view and prevented you from seeing a stop sign, speed limit sign, or yield sign, for example, you might be able to argue that you were legitimately unaware of the sign.
Sometimes you can beat a ticket without arguing that the officer was mistaken or not telling the truth. A legal justification is a valid reason for doing something that appears to be violating the law. A common situation in the traffic context involves a driver slowing down to make a turn. An officer might give them a citation for driving too slowly. While this might be technically true, slowing down to make a turn is a valid reason for driving more slowly.
A necessity defense will probably not be successful if the harm caused by the violation was greater than the harm avoided.
This is a relatively rare defense, but you may be able to argue that you violated a traffic law to avoid causing serious harm. The necessity defense may apply if you swerve to avoid hitting a pedestrian who suddenly stepped in front of you, or if you are taking a passenger to the hospital based on a life-threatening emergency. You also may be able to make this argument if you stop or swerve suddenly because your car breaks down.
How Not to Fight a Traffic Ticket
There are certain defenses that may seem persuasive to a driver but are unlikely to gain much traction with a judge. You probably will not win your case by saying that you did not know the law, by generally alleging that the officer is lying, or by pointing out that radar checks of speed are not infallible. Sometimes a driver feels that they should not receive a ticket because nobody was hurt or put at risk by their actions. This is rarely relevant unless their ticket was based on exceeding a presumed speed limit.
Some drivers feel that the officer unfairly singled them out when other motorists were acting similarly. The selective enforcement defense rarely succeeds because it requires proof of an improper motive by the officer, which is hard to show.