What should I expect in traffic court?
November 29, 2010 7:37 AM   Subscribe

I have a date in traffic court coming up, for choosing to plead not guilty to a moving violation. What should I expect? I've never been to court before.

I'm worried about dress code, 'court costs' and whether I made a huge mistake to do something other than pay the ticket and accept the points on my license.

I truly believe I did not do what the ticket was given for, which is why I chose to plead not guilty- but perhaps I would be better off pleading guilty but with a reason behind it (and hope for a reduction in fine and points). I'm really not sure of how this whole thing might play out.

Have you successfully fought a traffic ticket and won? What should I expect in regards to court in general? This is in New Jersey, for what it's worth.
posted by rachaelfaith to Law & Government (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If possible, spend a morning in traffic court ahead of your date to get a sense of how it operates. You'll get familiar with procedure and you'll get a sense of what is successful (or not!) in contesting a ticket.
posted by mazola at 7:44 AM on November 29, 2010

I posted this to Fat Wallet a while ago in response to a similar question asked by someone who happened to be quite local to me.
Hey, fellow Nassau resident here (Westbury). Did you get a ticket from a local village cop or a county cop? If it's being handled at a village level (like Village of Garden City, Village of Valley Stream, etc) then you'll need to plea bargain with them. This varies from village to village. On the other hand, if this was from a Nassau County Police Officer, you can either plead guilty by mail and pay it and take the points, or you can appear in Hempstead. (Please note that parking there is metered and strictly enforced -- you'd be surprised how many people who get traffic tickets get parking tickets while fighting their traffic ticket.)

It will take you a while there as there is always a line. Plan on wasting half a day, at least. Either a clerk or whatever junior attorney from the DA's office got picked for the day to handle traffic court will eventually call you.

Based on your alleged violation, there will be an offer made. They never bargain for people who pass the stop signs on school buses or speed in a school zone, but after that, they knock down pretty much everything. For smaller infractions such as yours, they'll usually offer that you pay the fine and get it will go on your record as a seat belt violation (no points and thus no insurance increase). If it's speeding, such as 20 over, they bring it down to something like 15 over. In short, for showing up, to discourage people from contesting things further, they make the first offer.

Take it. By the time you waste another day (possibly several more on this) and hire an attorney to fight a ticket that's a few hundred, you're already spending more than you would have already. The only thing you want to avoid is points which would jack up your insurance.

As for the entire "if the cop doesn't show up thing", well, they've got all the time in the world and they'll adjourn it. Even then, the DA of the day will probably just get a written statement from the citing officer and use that if the cop doesn't show the second time. No judge will dismiss it outright. (In fact, they aren't really judges!)

(I've been to Hempstead on two different occasions and watched hundreds of people as I've waited my turn. I've seen a few people come in lawyered up, but it didn't seem to get them anything, just someone to talk to while they waited. As long as you avoid points, I'd consider it just an expensive lesson to either (a) drive a bit better or (b) keep a better eye out for unmarked cops.)
I've since moved (Long Beach, NY FTW!) but if your local traffic court is anything like mine, it's what you could expect.
posted by Brian Puccio at 7:46 AM on November 29, 2010

Best answer: If it's anything like what happened to me (in Wisconsin), it's pretty low-key. Dress conservatively but not overly formal -- business casual, however you might define that term, is fine. At the very least, clean and plain clothing. Like Burhanistan said, you'll see all sorts of slobs. Use the Judge Judy rule: don't wear anything that would make her remark (or that makes you goggle when you watch).

I was in a similar situation. I got caught for rolling through a stop sign on a moped (a distance of five feet at approximately 0.3 mph), when the whole reason I did so was to see the flashing lights around the corner and figure out what was going on before running into it. It was basically a sting by the campus police department. I got a $160 ticket and potentially 6 points off.

So I went in and there was a whole mess of people, many in the same situation. They wanted to move people through quickly, but it still took maybe an hour or so. I brought knitting and they didn't care.

The court commissioner (not a judge, but very professional and well-known around town) was friendly and businesslike and made us comfortable, as much as it's possible when you are there because you ostensibly did something wrong. The officers in question were off to the side, and if someone whom that officer particular had cited came up, they would come up as well.

The thing about my case was that yes, in fact, I did do what the ticket said, even though I found it ludicrous that they would catch me for it when I was carefully trying to see something that they, themselves, had set up. By the terms of the law, I had violated it, which I said out loud to the judge. (I do not recommend this technique.)

He then gave me the option to plead no contest, which would reduce my penalty. It basically means that you do not admit guilt, but you also don't deny the charges. Because I had a good driving record, he reduced it to the lowest he could go. Unfortunately, for this particular violation that was still 3 points and $148, but he had done all he could.

The other option would have been going to Real Court and fighting the charges, which would have then led to me having to find a lawyer and pay court costs. That would have been more than the penalty, so I pled no contest and went home. Once he got to my case, it took less than five minutes.

By showing up at all, you are pretty much guaranteed a reduction in penalty. Just go. It's no big deal.
posted by Madamina at 8:02 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would dress nicely - maybe a little below "professional job interview" in niceness. Bring a copy of the relevant code you were cited for, a copy of any correspondence you've had on the matter, and a copy of the ticket.

I haven't ever had a ticket, but the above is what my mom did when she fought off hers. My dad took a ton of photos of the scene of his first contested ticket, blew them up to 36" by 48", and the judge concluded that he'd proven he'd broken the law. He only had to pay the ticket costs. Any court costs should be published; you can either get them online or call the office of the court in question.
posted by SMPA at 8:10 AM on November 29, 2010

Best answer: I have fought and won, if by won you mean 'having charges and fines greatly reduced.' This was in Pennsauken, which seems to get most of its revenue from fining residents of Camden. Show up, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. My alleged running a red light (a judgement call by a police officer who did not show up) was reduced to 'obstructing the highway.' I didn't understand - I thought it would be changed to something like 'disregarded a signal' which is more like ignoring a yield sign - but it carried no points and a very modest fine.
posted by fixedgear at 8:15 AM on November 29, 2010

Have you already plead not-guilty? If you haven't entered your plea yet, your time in court may consist of waiting for your name to be called, being sworn in, entering the plea, and getting sent home with another court date in the future.

I have fought a traffic ticket and won -- I thought it was pretty cut-and-dried; cop cited me for not stopping at a stop-sign. There was not a stop sign at the intersection. It wasn't a slam-dunk, because once I showed proof there wasn't a stop-sign at the intersection, the cop claimed it was a different intersection than he wrote on the ticket; the judge's decision was that there wasn't enough proof that I was at either intersection, so it was dismissed -- but there wasn't a satisfying, "ha, I'm right!" moment like I had hoped. Also, in my case the judge didn't rule immediately, because he wanted to examine the evidence closer than he could do in the courtroom (I had brought maps from the city engineer and photos; he had poor eyesight); I got a letter a few weeks later, complete with a check for the amount of my bond.

What I learned from my case was that the court takes whatever the cop says as bonafide truth, even if he changes his story and contradicts what he said before; you may not just need to have proof not that you didn't do what the cop says you did, but that it is impossible to have done what the cop said you did. Otherwise, it may come down to your word against the cop, and the courts side with the cop unless something is out of the ordinary.

In waiting for my case to come up, I saw about a dozen other traffic "not guilty" pleas try to defend themselves. It was winter, and the main argument was that it was icy and they couldn't stop at the stoplight/stopsign; in each case the judge said, essentially, the law doesn't give exceptions for ice, and you didn't stop at the stoplight regardless of extenuating circumstances, so you still get cited for not stopping at the stoplight. I don't know what their original punishment would have been, so it might be that arguing, "those events happened but I couldn't help it" may have resulted in a lower sentence, I'm not sure.

And, lastly, if they try to change the charge (for instance, you disproved the failure-to-yeild so they try to change it to reckless driving) ask for a new court date for the new charges -- don't defend the new one right there, because you won't be prepared and you might not be able to do a good job of it. Since it's extra time for the court and the cop, they might just drop the case. Like someone above said, cops have plenty of time to schedule around their court cases, so the "maybe the cop won't show up and they'll drop the charges" is largely urban legend, but the court might get annoyed at retrying the same person over and over until something sticks.

Dress code: I was the only person wearing a shirt that wasn't pulled on over my head. Maybe it helped the judge take me more seriously, who knows, but try to dress up kinda nice.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:15 AM on November 29, 2010

If the officer doesn't show up, you simply say Not Guilty, the judge smiles, and sends you on your way.

I had a traffic court date for a Fairly Minor Offense that got turned into a fairly major offense, because my insurance card was expired when the cop pulled me over. (I had insurance, but my agent has never been particularly good about mailing new cards on time, and therefore I was given a huge ticket for being uninsured). In any event, I was verifiably not guilty for the insurance thing, and simply needed to show up to explain my case, and hoped to get the Fairly Minor Offense reduced along the way.

After waiting an hour, the officer didn't show, and the judge called me to the stand, and asked me how I pleaded. Being a stupid idealist, I pleaded 'guilty' to the minor offense, which prompted the judge to put his hand over the microphone, and say "Son... there's nobody here to testify against you. Are you sure you want to do that?"

"Oh. Excuse me. I plead 'Not Guilty' to all charges"

"Any Objections? ..... All charges dropped. Have a nice day, Mr. Schmod."
posted by schmod at 8:15 AM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: This question might come out as naive, but would there be any need to bring or present the original ticket?

The no contest option sounds like a good one, considering I have a clean driving record and the original violation was only 2 points and a fine under $100. Hopefully I can at least reduce the points to save me from increased insurance rates.
posted by rachaelfaith at 8:16 AM on November 29, 2010

In my case, it helped that I had the original ticket, since it showed what the cop wrote on their at the time of the citation; that helped prove what I said happened, since my police officer changed his story (or didn't correctly remember) while in court.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:22 AM on November 29, 2010

i contested a ticket once for speeding in a school zone. before the actual proceedings, the ... prosecutor, i guess ... spoke to me & told me he couldn't knock down the ticket & i owed $x. he told me i could take my chances with the judge, but my chances were slim to none, so i paid up. it was an interesting exercise that i hope to never repeat.
posted by msconduct at 8:38 AM on November 29, 2010

Because police officers have scheduled court days, if you ask to reschedule, it's possible that the rescheduled hearing may fall on the day when the officer who wrote your ticket is not available, thus increasing the chances of you being able to be successful in your "Not Guilty".
posted by scblackman at 9:06 AM on November 29, 2010

I've only had to appear in court regarding traffic tickets on two occasions, but each time even though I was ultimately found "guilty*" the judge/magistrate reduced the original charge so that there'd be no points on my license. In both my cases, I noted that a lot of the folks waiting to be heard looked like they'd just rolled out of bed and had donned whatever sweatshirt or T-shirt and grubby jeans were handy. I had to go to work after my case, so I was in dress slacks and a blouse. It's strictly anecdotal, but it seemed to me that my case went much more quickly than those of the sloppily-dressed in front of me (the magistrate didn't even question the officer who was present; he listened to my testimony and made his decision).

*One charge was for going through a yellow light, which I did not know was against the law. The second I was pretty much at fault for - it was pouring rain, visibility was nil, and I was speeding because I was late for work and I rear-ended a stalled car. I left out the "speeding" part in court, and mentioned that the stalled car didn't have on its hazard lights (true) and the magistrate lowered the offense to "not allowing proper stopping distance" which resulted in lower fine and zero points.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:46 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, whew, you all eased my mind a bit. I'll come prepared with my Kindle in case the wait time is long, and I'll dress cleanly and semi-professionally. Not that I was going to show up in a housedress and slippers, but it's good to hear from others.

I did already enter my plea via phone, and it actually was already postponed once due to a college exam that my professor wouldn't reschedule. Maybe the officer won't show up, maybe he will, but either way I feel a bit more prepared. Thanks to everyone.
posted by rachaelfaith at 12:21 PM on November 29, 2010

I fought a moving violation successfully in California during college.

Stopped at a 4 way stop, waited my turn, and proceeded straight through intersection. Immediately pulled over, very confused; knew that I had stopped and waited, thought it might be something with my out-of-state plates, but the officer wouldn't tell me why he had pulled me over - even when asked. Finally came back to the car and informed me that the intersection I used was designated as "Right Turn Only from 4 - 6 pm (Wha?). I told him I hadn't seen any sign to that effect, he gave me my ticket and that was it.

I went back through the neighborhood and watched the same cop pull over another person for the same thing. I drove to the same spot, and found one sign bent over at a 45 degree angle away from the road, and facing down about 10 yards before the stop. The other sign at the intersection was blocked by a construction site portable toilet, and could only be seen if you turned your head all the way to the right as you pulled up. I made my right turn, looped around once more, and saw the friendly local precinct one block away, and watch the officer pull over the third person in less than 10 minutes. Hell of a money-making operation.

The next day I came back with a camera and took pictures of the damaged and blocked signs. My court date was far away, and when the time came I brought the pictures and dressed above the norm for the crowd, basic dress shirt and khakis. Waited over two hours for my turn, hearing the story of every person without insurance, without a license, etc; all much much worse than my offense.

I was confused as to what I should plead, after listening to the previous cases. Not guilty generally resulted in setting an actual court date, guilty just meant get your fine, and I went with "No Contest" with explanation. I explained the situation clearly to the judge, and told him I had pictures, which were brought to him. During that time, I almost pushed my luck by pointing out the number of people pulled over and the proximity to the police station, but the judge quickly waved that idea off and agreed that the signs were not clearly visible. He ruled the case dismissed, but I did have to pay the court fees (somewhere on the line of $27?). I greatly enjoyed arguing my case like that, but thank goodness I didn't go on to law school.
posted by shinynewnick at 12:24 PM on November 29, 2010

I'll come prepared with my Kindle in case the wait time is long...

Check the courthouse's rules: they may require electronic devices be turned off while court is in session.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:45 PM on November 29, 2010

maybe the cop won't show up and they'll drop the charges" is largely urban legend

Not necessarily; it happened for me once in upstate New York. I showed up in court, the cop wasn't there, the judge asked me if I had received some papers (I don't remember exactly what they were supposed to be) in the mail, I answered truthfully that I had not. The judge looked vaguely annoyed, dismissed the charges, and moved on to the next guy in line.

The officer had explained ahead of time exactly how this would all play out, while he was writing the ticket. Guess he needed to meet a quota.
posted by ook at 12:54 PM on November 29, 2010

Check out the National Motorists Association at www.motorists.org. They live for this kind of stuff. I've used them to successfully defend myself against at least three moving violations that I can recall. They have publications that are useful, referral services, advice, strategies for fighting radar and laser tickets, etc. Also, they have a program for members that is really spiff: if you receive a citation and go to court to fight it they will pay the ticket if you lose- up to $300 per year. The only hitch is that you have to be a member when you are cited.

You have very little to lose in actively defending yourself and much to gain!
posted by Pachycerianthus at 1:27 PM on November 29, 2010

Here's the key points I stressed on when getting out of a moving violation in DE (travelling too closely).

- I was aware of my surroundings, cautious of the driver in front of me, my foot was on the break and I was gradually slowing down with him, trying to match his speed (which was well below the limit as he was being overly cautious having spotted the officer).

- I did not in any way feel that my safety or the other driver's safety was in jeopardy. We were going about 10mph.

- I didn't believe that the officer was in a location that could effectively discern how close I was following (too sharp of an angle)

- I was in not in a hurry or in any way frustrated or driving aggressively.

Interesting tid-bit about the hearing was that before I entered the courtroom the officer was trying really hard to convince me to plead guilty and accept PBJ (probation before judgement). So my best advice to you is to not feel pressured by law enforcement into feeling that you're better off just admitting guilt. Be polite, and respectful to the judge...they are not always on the side of law enforcement, but are rather interested in whether the law was applied unbiased and fairly. Explain your perspective clearly and give a good rationalization on how you believe you're not guilty. Bring any and all supporting documentation that could help you argue your case. Try to let the officer go first, who may draw on a whiteboard to explain his report. Just be aware of and challenge the "keywords" that the officer uses to tie you to the law you allegedly broke. In many cases, the officer wants to give the case due diligence, and may rest his case after the first round.

The way I saw it...if I was found guilty, I would have probably faced a stiffer penalty. But if not guilty, there is no charge whatsoever. (whereas PBJ would've involved a fine anyway)
posted by samsara at 1:39 PM on November 29, 2010

My last ticket was seven years ago. I received a photo in the mail saying that I had been caught by a photo-radar van speeding. The picture was black and white and blurry, and you couldn't really tell it was me, so I decided to go to court.

At court, the police office came over to me with a huge, full-color copy of the photo and it was obviously me, so I went with plan B: tell the truth.

"Your Honor, I don't remember speeding when this picture was taken, but I had just left a funeral for my wife's grandmother. I wasn't in the best frame of mind, so if I *was* speeding, that's why. If you look at my record, you'll see that I haven't had a traffic ticket for over 10 years. I follow the law as best as I can."

The judge reduced my fine as low as she could, which was fine since I didn't honestly know if I had been speeding.

The next year, Oregon law changed and judges were no longer able to reduce fines for this type of violation. Lucky me.
posted by tacodave at 2:46 PM on November 29, 2010

Best answer: I received my first speeding ticket 2 years ago on Thanksgiving at the rip old age of 33:)

I felt I could fight it and win, but in the end, I took a plea deal (that is generally offered to people without several past tickets) which ended up being a fine only (with probation). The short of it is that they will not likely give up the revenue (speeding tickets bring in a lot of revenue for cities/counties) by letting me off, but they will strike a deal with you (likely). Sometimes cops don't show, but don't count on it. If you really believe you are innocent, by all means fight the charge, but be prepared to show a lot of proof to such. Remember, it is your word against a cops...I think you are better off going into it trying to get the charge/fine reduced to something that will not affect your license )points) or insurance, which you very likely can do.
posted by mdn31 at 3:05 PM on November 30, 2010

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