You do not need to testify on your own behalf in traffic court, but strategically it makes sense. If you exercise your right to silence while arguing that the prosecution has not met its burden of proof, a judge or jury may infer that you are hiding your guilt. Your testimony should show that you did not commit at least one necessary element of the violation or that you meet the elements of a legal defense. You can make an outline of your presentation in advance, but you should become sufficiently comfortable and familiar with it to avoid reading it. After you cross-examine the officer, you can make small changes to your outline to address any new facts that they may have mentioned.
To help you conquer your nerves, you can practice your testimony in advance and ask someone whom you know to play the role of the judge. They can interrupt to ask you questions, which the judge may do, and eventually tell you whether they would convict you. Going to traffic court to see other cases before yours also can put you at ease by giving you a sense of what to expect.
Examples of Presenting Your Testimony
If you are charged with a speeding violation, and your state uses an absolute speed limit, you should make sure that your testimony supports an argument that you were not speeding. Perhaps the officer could not properly see your car, perhaps they mistook your car for a similar vehicle, or perhaps the radar hit other vehicles. (These are difficult cases to win, since a judge or jury usually will trust an officer rather than a driver.)
The Purpose of Testimony
A driver’s testimony should focus on rebutting any prosecution evidence related to one or more elements of the alleged violation. This may include raising doubt as to the accuracy or credibility of the prosecution’s evidence or introducing new evidence.
If you are charged with a speeding violation, and your state uses a presumed speed limit, you can take a two-pronged approach. First, you can testify that you believe that you were not speeding at all, assuming that this is true. You should not admit that you were speeding unless you know that you were. If you do, you can fall back on stating that you were traveling only slightly over the speed limit, and you can testify about why the circumstances made this safe. It may be much easier to challenge an officer’s judgment in this situation because it is subjective.
If you are charged with a red light violation, you can testify (if it is true) that you were within a few car lengths from the intersection when the light changed from green to yellow. You are not guilty of a red light violation unless your front bumper crossed the line into the intersection after the light turned red. A yellow light must last long enough for a car to cross the intersection before the light turns red when the driver is obeying the speed limit.
A prosecutor may cross-examine you to probe for inconsistencies in your story. If a prosecutor does not come, the officer probably will not cross-examine you, although the judge may ask some questions. You should respond to cross-examination in a calm, rational manner, and you always should tell the truth. (The prosecutor likely knows the answer to most of the questions that they are asking, and they are asking questions in part because they hope that you will get caught in a lie or half-truth.) While you should answer the questions to the extent that you can, you should limit your responses to the scope of the question rather than providing superfluous information. Even if the prosecutor tells you that you need to answer yes or no, you have a right to explain your answer and can ask the judge to help you protect this right. When you do not know an answer to a question, you should feel free to say that you do not know rather than guessing and risking a false statement.
Preparing Testimony by Defense Witnesses
Sometimes a driver will present testimony by other people who witnessed the situation that gave rise to the alleged violation. This may be a passenger in the car, or it may be someone in the vicinity who saw what happened. You should talk with the witness beforehand to make sure that their version of events supports your position. Then, you can outline the testimony that each witness will provide and decide how to arrange the order of their testimony, based on how it fits into your argument.
You should tell the witness about the main legal elements of your case and the arguments that you will make. If a witness, such as a friend or a family member, offers to bend the truth in your favor, you should prevent them from doing this. While they may or may not be charged with perjury, the prosecutor likely will catch them in a lie, and this can undermine the rest of your case. On the other hand, you can help the witness rehearse their testimony and play the role of a cross-examining prosecutor to help them anticipate challenges. The witness can feel free to say that they discussed their testimony with you if the prosecutor asks.
The court clerk can help a driver obtain witness subpoenas.
If you want to introduce testimony from a witness who is not a friend or family member, you may need to serve them with a subpoena to make sure that they appear. A subpoena may be necessary when a witness usually has other commitments during that time, such as a job or school, or when a witness has said that they want to testify but may forget. You should ask the court clerk about the process of issuing a subpoena and follow those rules carefully. If the witness has said that they do not want to appear in court, you probably should not serve them with a subpoena, even if their testimony seems likely to be favorable. They may change or twist their testimony because of their resentment about coming to court.