Trials & The Legal Process in Traffic Ticket Cases
If your traffic ticket case goes to trial, you will want to understand in advance how each stage of the process unfolds. In general, each side will have the opportunity to make an opening statement. The prosecution will present their testimony next, and the defense will follow. Each side will have an opportunity to cross-examine the other side’s witnesses. Then, each side can make their closing arguments to the judge or jury. (The majority of traffic ticket cases take place before a judge, but sometimes a driver will exercise their right to a jury if their state provides it.) The verdict will follow soon afterward.
Some states use informal procedures to handle traffic ticket cases, since the stakes are less high than in most criminal cases. In other situations, a judge may conduct a trial without the presence of a prosecutor.
A driver may make certain motions after the case has been called but before the trial actually starts. For example, if the officer fails to appear, the driver may ask the court to dismiss the case for lack of prosecution. Another situation in which dismissal may be appropriate is when the prosecution has ignored your requests to review the officer’s notes. If the prosecution has violated your right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment, you may be able to ask for dismissal on that basis.
If you need more time to prepare your case, you can ask for a continuance to delay the trial. However, you should wait to make sure that the officer who issued the ticket shows up before asking for a continuance. Even if you are not prepared, you can get the case dismissed if they do not appear.
The prosecution sometimes will waive their right to make an opening statement, but this does not mean that the driver also should waive this right. If you are going through a jury trial, you should use this opportunity to make a good first impression on the jury. Many jurors make judgments early in a case, even before the evidence has been presented. Waiving the right to make a statement means that the prosecution’s evidence will give the jury their first impression of the case, which can result in the driver fighting an uphill battle.
If you are going through a trial before a judge, making an opening statement may not be important if the prosecution has waived it. Unless you have a particularly strong statement prepared, the judge may prefer to reach the testimony phase more efficiently. Regardless of whether you are facing a judge or a jury, you should be concise and polite in the opening statement. You should avoid questioning the officer’s integrity and keep your emotions in check.
Testimony and Cross-Examination
First, the prosecution will present the testimony of the officer who issued the ticket. You can make objections to questions that you believe are improper, but you may want to be sparing with your objections. A judge may get impatient with the delays, and a jury may be suspicious of a driver who constantly objects, believing that they are trying to hide something. However, if the prosecutor starts bending or breaking the rules on an important issue, you should feel free to object.
You will have the opportunity to present your testimony and the testimony of any witnesses on your side once the prosecution has finished presenting their case. If you do not make your opening statement before testimony starts, this is the stage at which you will make it. In a jury trial, you should try to make eye contact with the jury and watch for non-verbal cues that suggest how jury members are responding. This can help you adjust your statements and prepare your closing argument. If you do not have a lawyer, you likely can provide your testimony as a narrative rather than asking questions to yourself. Your witnesses also probably can testify in narrative form unless the judge insists that you question them.
Each side can cross-examine witnesses presented by the other side. When you are facing cross-examination by the prosecution, you should make sure to answer the questions honestly. You should ask the prosecution to clarify any question that you do not understand. If you do not know the answer, you can feel free to say that and explain why.
The prosecution will present their closing argument before you present yours. These typically matter more in a trial before a jury than a trial before a judge, who probably already has reached a decision based on the evidence. You can take notes during the prosecution’s closing argument to help you frame your closing argument, which should respond in part to the prosecution. As with other phases of the prosecution’s case, you should not show emotion or interrupt during their closing argument.
Your closing argument will need to summarize the reasons why the evidence presented does not meet the prosecution’s burden of establishing your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. You should make sure to remind the jury about this standard of proof, pointing out that they cannot find you guilty if they have any doubt about any element of the charge.
The prosecution has the opportunity to make a rebuttal argument to the defendant’s closing argument. This is often waived in traffic ticket cases and tends to be very brief when it happens.
Jury Instructions and Verdict
If you are going through a jury trial, you can submit your proposed jury instructions to the judge. However, the judge likely will handle this process competently on their own, so you probably should just allow the judge to prepare the instructions.
The jury then will deliberate in the jury room until they reach a verdict. A driver will not be convicted if the jury does not reach a unanimous verdict in a state that requires unanimity. Likewise, a driver will not be convicted if an insufficient number of jurors agree in a state that does not require unanimity. If the jury does convict the driver, they will appear for sentencing at a later date.
Informal Procedures in Traffic Court
Some states have moved the traffic court system from criminal court to a less formal civil or administrative process. As a result, the state has a lower burden of proof, which may be the preponderance of the evidence or clear and convincing evidence instead of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Evidentiary rules tend to be less technical in these situations. While this makes the proceedings less complex, it also means that the defendant has more limited rights. States that use this system include Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington, as well as Washington, D.C.
You may be able to choose between a formal and an informal hearing in a civil or administrative traffic system. A formal hearing usually works in a driver’s favor because the officer must appear for the case to proceed. The driver also will be able to challenge the officer’s evidence directly in a formal hearing.
Trials Without a Prosecutor
Sometimes a prosecutor will not come to court but will rely on the officer to present their evidence against the driver. In this situation, the officer usually will give their testimony as a narrative. You can cross-examine the officer afterward, and then you can present your own testimony and other evidence in your defense. The judge will proceed directly to the verdict and announce the sentence if you are convicted.
The judge may urge you to waive your right to cross-examine the officer, but generally you should not waive it. However, the judge has substantial discretion in running their courtroom, so you should be ready to adjust to any idiosyncrasies that you may not have expected. As long as you handle the situation politely, the judge should treat you fairly.
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