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What should i plead in traffic court?
August 10, 2007 8:37 AM   Subscribe

What should i plead in traffic court?

I am scheduled to show up in court for a uniform traffic ticket I got after a fender bender for following too closely (basically, I couldn't swerve fast enough, the car ahead stopped in time).

I've read in other posts that sometimes if the cop doesn't show up, the ticket gets thrown out. However, I don't want to count on this. Supposing it doesn't matter whether or not the cop shows up: should I immediately plea guilty, or does it work to come up with a defense? Is the person whose car was hit required to show up?

Also, I am from out-of-state (hearing in New York). Does this matter at all?
posted by nj554 to Law & Government (10 answers total)
 
According to my brother, you should plead guilty but give an explanation of what happened, and the judge will likely reduce the fine.
If you plead innocent, you probably won't get off (especially in the situation you describe) and you'll have to pay the whole fine.

However, this advice is for California; NY may be different.
posted by exceptinsects at 8:47 AM on August 10, 2007


I've been in a few of these. When I've gone (and mind you, this was in Georgia - YMMV), the officer has never shown. The other party was not required to show up, and as long as the insurance company was paying on their claim, most didn't. When the judge called my name, I went to the front. He asked me for my my plea. I said "not guilty". He told me to have a nice day and I walked out. Over in about 30 seconds.

Traffic court is a crowded, chaotic deal - they have tons of cases stacked up so you may be in for a long wait before you get called up. Bring a book, though watching the cases before you can be interesting (and occasionally entertaining).

The sheer volume of cases tends to have the judge sort through them pretty quickly. I watched opposing parties (with and without the ticketing officers) go up and re-enact their accidents with model cars on a table. The judge was usually ready to rule in about a minute and a half of listening.
posted by jquinby at 8:49 AM on August 10, 2007


Also - seconding what exceptinsects says. If the officer is there, your best bet is to plead guilty, be genuinely contrite, etc.
posted by jquinby at 8:52 AM on August 10, 2007


In my experience with New Jersey (not new york) it's best to plead not guilty, because then you have the chance to cut a deal with the prosecutor before you go into the courtroom.
posted by pantsonfire at 9:48 AM on August 10, 2007


NEVER plead guilty when another car is involved. You should plead "No Contest," which means you are not trying to fight the citation - but you also do not admit culpability in case the car in front of you sues you for medical expenses or extra damages. This is a critical distinction that could bite you in the ass later.
posted by dendrite at 10:39 AM on August 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


The last time I was in traffic court -- and this was not in NY state -- basically there was an opportunity to line up and talk to the prosecutor at the beginning of the session. You'd go up, talk to him, and he'd offer a deal (generally some sort of reduced fine). If you want the deal, you plead guilty, sign some paperwork, and you're done. There's no trial if you plead guilty right there. It doesn't matter if the police officer is around for this part.

Now, you can signal your intention to plead not guilty, and then it will move towards a hearing in front of the judge. This is where they would need to bring the witnesses in (the police officer). If you get to this stage and the police officer isn't around, then you get to walk (usually). Actually, if you say that you're going to plead not guilty and the prosecutor doesn't have a witness, he'll probably just drop the charges to get you off the docket. (He doesn't have a case so he's not going to waste the judge's time.)

However, if you plead not guilty and the police officer does show up, then you're pretty much guaranteed to lose. And you've probably also pissed off the judge, the police officer, and the prosecutor by wasting their time and taking something forward that you knew had no merit. So they're going to shaft you if they get the opportunity, which they will.

It's tough to tell you what to do. It's a game; basically you have to talk to the prosecutor and try and figure out whether he really has the police officer waiting around (in which case, he's not going to give you much of a deal, because he knows he's holding all the cards), or whether the officer didn't show up and isn't going to (in which case he's going to give you a better deal, because he knows that if you plead not guilty, that the charges will be dropped).

In my case, when I talked to him I thought he was being too shifty (I asked him flat-out if he had the police officer, knowing he wouldn't answer but just looking for his reaction), and I didn't take the deal, indicated that I would plead not guilty, and consequently he dropped the charges because he didn't have a witness. (In retrospect this was unusually ballsy for me; I had walked in there with the intention of taking whatever deal they were offering.)

However, things could have gone the other way -- I could have pleaded not guilty, he could have brought out the police officer as a witness, and then I would have looked like a real asshole because I would have pleaded not guilty when I obviously was. I suspect I would have gotten the book thrown at me then.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:46 AM on August 10, 2007


NEVER plead guilty when another car is involved. You should plead "No Contest," which means you are not trying to fight the citation - but you also do not admit culpability in case the car in front of you sues you for medical expenses or extra damages. This is a critical distinction that could bite you in the ass later.

PLEASE LISTEN TO dendrite

If you plead "Guilty" that can be used against you in a civil suit. "No Contest" means just that, you're not contesting the charges.

Guilty = I did it.
No Contest = "I'm not saying I didn't hit him..." Like guilty but it can't be used against you later.
posted by TheDukeofLancaster at 11:27 AM on August 10, 2007


First off, if you rear-end somebody, you are guilty of a traffic offence (you should have been allowing enough stopping distance between yourself and the car ahead) so you are not going to get off scott-free if the trial goes ahead.

The "if the cop doesn't show up" scenario does not have the result you're expecting in all jurisdictions. Make sure you're not mistaken about this.

We don't have "no contest" pleas around here so I don't know anything about that.

Trying to bargain for a lesser charge as Kadin suggests seems to be your best bet to me. For most traffic offences, the biggest penalty is the affect it has on your insurance which costs you many times more than the fine, so reducing the fine might not actually cost you significantly less money overall (once you factor in the insurance) while reducing the charge can make a huge difference (you'll need to research the specifics as they apply to your case). If you can't bargain down then pleading "guilty with an explanation" allows you to ask the judge for a lesser penalty. Another thing to think of is driver's licence points. Around here (Ontario, Canada) points are assessed by the Ministry of Transportation based on what offence you are convicted of, it's not part of the penalty assessed by the court so the only way to reduce the points is to reduce the charge (the judge can't change the number of points associated with an offence).
posted by winston at 11:33 AM on August 10, 2007


The cop not being there doesn't work much anymore, as the ticket is entered into evidence as his/her sworn testimony. You could of course request to face your accuser which is your right, and will most likely rightly piss off the judge.
posted by Gungho at 12:49 PM on August 10, 2007


Thanks for the suggestions!

UPDATE: I showed up at court only to discover that it was closed. Turns out, the cop wrote the wrong time on my ticket. I did call and find out that the fine isn't that bad... so, as I am well out of town, I am going to go ahead and plea guilty by mail. (There is no "No Contest" option.)
posted by nj554 at 8:14 PM on August 14, 2007


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