If you choose to fight your ticket rather than paying a fine, you will want to know what to expect in traffic court. The process will start with entering a plea and continue with gathering evidence in preparation for trial. Sometimes the driver and the prosecutor will agree on a settlement to resolve the case before it goes to a judge or jury. In other situations, the driver may be able to get the case dismissed if the officer does not show up. Otherwise, each side will present their arguments at trial. If the driver feels that they did not have a fair trial, they can consider an appeal.
Proceedings end at the pleading stage if a driver pays their fine and declines to contest the ticket.
There are four main types of pleas in traffic court. A driver who does not want to contest the ticket can simply pay the fine. They usually do not need to come to court and enter a formal guilty plea. If they want to fight the ticket, they can plead not guilty and post bail, which will be returned if they win the case. A driver usually does not need to appear in court to enter a not guilty plea either.
Two intermediate pleading options are guilty with an explanation and nolo contendere. A driver might want to plead guilty with an explanation if they are concerned about their ability to pay a fine and are hoping that the judge will reduce or suspend it. A nolo contendere plea might be appropriate if the ticket arose from an accident, since it can shield a driver from automatic liability in a related personal injury case.
To show your side of the story, you will want to prepare your testimony, as well as the testimony of any witnesses. You also can collect documentary evidence that supports your arguments, such as diagrams and photos.
In addition, you will want to review the evidence that the prosecution will be introducing to prove its case. An important part of this evidence is the notes written by the officer in the aftermath of the stop. These will serve as the basis for the officer’s testimony at trial, which will be the core of the prosecution’s case. If you face resistance to your discovery requests, you can file a pre-trial motion to compel discovery.
Often, a prosecutor will be willing to negotiate a settlement with the driver, similar to a plea bargain in a criminal case. A driver might be able to avoid a license suspension in a settlement by agreeing to pay the fine in exchange for a reduction in the points on their license. In other cases, a settlement might involve a reduction in the amount of the fine or an agreement to drop some charges when a driver is facing multiple violations.
Wait to Settle
It may be wise to wait until the officer comes to court before agreeing to a settlement on the trial date, since the case may be dismissed without the officer.
A settlement conference might occur in the judge’s chambers, or it might happen outside the courtroom just before the trial. The prosecutor would formally present the agreement to the judge, who has the right to deny it but rarely will. If the judge denies it, the driver can withdraw their plea. However, they cannot withdraw admissions made to the prosecutor during settlement discussions, so it is important to watch your words.
Some states allow a driver to demand a jury trial. If they exercise this right, the trial will start with selecting the jury. Whether the trial occurs before a judge or a jury, each side will have the right to make an opening statement. A driver should take advantage of this opportunity to create a strong first impression of their case. Then, the prosecution will present the testimony of the officer who issued the ticket, and the driver can cross-examine them. The driver will present their own testimony and the testimony of any supporting witnesses. The prosecutor can cross-examine the driver and their witnesses.
Once the evidence phase of the trial is complete, each side can make closing arguments. If the trial is before a jury, the judge will provide the jury with instructions, and they will deliberate before returning with a verdict. If the trial is before a judge, they will proceed directly to the verdict.
If you feel that the judge made a serious error in your case or did not treat you fairly, you can consider pursuing an appeal. These do not usually succeed unless your state permits you to ask for a new trial before a new judge. A new trial gives you the opportunity to present your case again and have the new judge (or jury) weigh the facts. If you do not have the right to ask for a new trial, you will need to convince an appellate court that the trial judge made a significant legal error, which is rare. In some cases, however, an appeal can be an effective delay tactic to avoid a license suspension, even if it does not succeed in reversing the trial outcome.