If you have received a traffic ticket, you will need to decide whether to pay your fine or go to court to fight it. In legal terms, this is known as “pleading.” There are four main ways to plead if you are not eligible for traffic school or do not want to go to traffic school. You can pay the fine, which is similar to pleading guilty. You can plead guilty with an explanation or plead nolo contendere, which are useful only in certain situations. Or you can plead not guilty. You should contact the court in advance of the deadline for making your decision to find out how to enter your plea. Also, you will want to research the law governing your alleged violation to find out which plea makes sense for you.
Some but not all states still use the arraignment procedure for traffic tickets. This involves entering your plea in court before a judge. They will tell you the nature of your charge and your legal rights, and then they will ask you whether you understand your rights. If your state provides the right to a jury trial in traffic cases, you will ask for a jury trial at this stage if you choose to exercise the right. (You can still exercise the right if your state provides it but does not use the arraignment procedure, but you should ask the court clerk how to exercise the right.) The arraignment also allows you to find out about your right to get the evidence that will be used against you, a process known as discovery in legal language.
Paying the Fine (Guilty Plea)
This will result in having the violation entered on your traffic record. A single traffic violation probably will not have major consequences for your license or insurance premiums. If you get another violation soon afterward, however, having the pre-existing violation on your record could put these things at risk. This can make it important to contest a traffic ticket if you believe that you have a viable defense. A driver usually does not need to enter a formal guilty plea in court but instead can pay the fine by mail. As a result, paying the fine does not expose you to civil liability if the violation was related to an accident.
If you are required to plead guilty in court, this may expose you to civil liability if an accident was involved. Assuming that you do not have a defense, you can plead nolo contendere in this situation to avoid civil liability. (Read more below about nolo contendere pleas.)
Guilty with an Explanation
In unusual cases, a driver may be able to convince a judge to reduce their fine if they have a convincing explanation for the violation. Sometimes the judge even will suspend the fine. This plea can be worth considering if you are facing serious financial difficulties, but otherwise it is probably not worthwhile. The violation still will appear on your driving record, adding points to your license and potentially increasing your insurance premiums. If you believe that you may have a defense, you should plead not guilty.
This means that you are not contesting the charge. While this sounds essentially like a guilty plea, it has the critical difference of not being an admission of guilt. Technically, you are just admitting the facts in the charge. Pleading guilty can be used to establish your liability in a civil case, while pleading nolo contendere cannot. If a judge refuses to allow you to enter a nolo contendere plea, you should plead not guilty and review the situation with an attorney.
Not Guilty Plea
You have a right to plead not guilty, even if you are not sure whether you are guilty. In this situation, you may need to post bail, which is a modest amount of money that will be returned if you defeat the ticket. Usually, a driver does not need to appear in court to enter a not guilty plea. Read more here about defenses in traffic ticket cases that may provide a strong basis for entering a not guilty plea.
Trial by Declaration or Affidavit
You may be able to make your defense to a traffic ticket by writing and signing a declaration or affidavit under penalty of perjury. The declaration will contain your version of events and your legal arguments. Sometimes a driver will submit accompanying declarations or affidavits by witnesses as well. Most states do not specifically allow for this procedure, but a court still may permit it upon request. Drivers sometimes ask for a trial by declaration or affidavit if they live far away from court. They also may feel that they can present their arguments more effectively in writing than orally.
Using a trial by declaration or affidavit results in waiving certain rights. For example, you will not be able to cross-examine the officer who stopped you, and you will not be able to get the case dismissed if the officer fails to come to court. You may not be allowed to see the officer’s notes before preparing your declaration or affidavit, so you may not be able to anticipate their arguments.
Delays and Your Right to a Speedy Trial
You have a right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While the Constitution does not define the required time period, some states set a specific limit. This can play a role in a traffic cases because the case tends to be scheduled close to the end of the permitted time period. Any delay that was not your responsibility may push the case past the speedy trial window and allow you to get it dismissed. As a result, you should try to avoid waiving your right to a speedy trial if asked.
If you want to postpone the arraignment or trial, you should arrange for a new date that is still within the required period. Otherwise, you may waive your right to a speedy trial, since it would be unfair for a driver to get a case dismissed on the basis of a delay that they caused. A delay can be helpful, however, since it can postpone any conviction until after previous points on your license have expired. This can avert a license suspension.