What explanations do traffic court judges look most favorably on?
June 8, 2015 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Whenever someone appears in traffic court, my understanding is they typically have an opportunity to explain themselves (e.g. "so just why were you going 15 over the speed limit?"). What kind of explanations do traffic court judges look most favorably on?

Is it better to give a specific reason/excuse, like "I was on the way to the hospital"? Are some reasons perceived as being better than others?

Or is it better to not give any reason, which may or may not be BS and can't really be proven in any case, and instead just say "it was an honest mistake, it won't happen again"? Even though it's kind of an admission of guilt?

Obviously it depends on the case at hand, the county's rules, and even the specific judge. But often it's just the driver's word against the police officer's, so which approach typically looks more serious/credible to the judge? Is it different in certain parts of the country? Are there certain cliche things that cause judges to roll their eyes every time they hear them?

Hoping to hear from people, perhaps lawyers, who have seen a number of cases and can speak to a pattern (if one exists).
posted by Questolicious to Law & Government (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You may be able to sort this on the day you appear. The times I've been to traffic court (in a few different jurisdictions), they've all been something of a cattle call. Unless you're picked to go first, you'll likely have the chance to see several cases heard and settled right in front of you, which should give you an idea of the judge's mood and style - what sorts of things are worthwhile to mention, etc. Dress well, be polite/contrite, follow all directions, etc.
posted by jquinby at 9:48 AM on June 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

When I went to traffic court to resolve a ticket for expired registration, I didn't even have much of a chance to explain myself. I told somebody when I was checking in that I had since gotten my registration in order, and when it finally got to be my turn in front of the judge, they just said, "OK, so you've got your registration now? All right, ticket dismissed" and shuffled me right along without any back-and-forth. Don't know how it goes with speeding tickets.
posted by aka burlap at 9:55 AM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

For my first speeding ticket, I went to court, dressed in a suit, and looked very contrite as I explained that it was my first ticket ever and I was very sorry and it would never happen again. I'm sure it worked to my advantage that I'm 1) white; 2) professional-looking; and 3) very petite. I didn't offer any excuses (mainly because I didn't have any; I was late for work). The judge dismissed the fine, put me under "supervision" (if I didn't get stopped again within a year, it would fall off my record) and all I had to pay were court fees.

The second time I was stopped, two years later, I knew I was hosed so I just paid the fine through the mail and didn't bother contesting it. I did actually learn my lesson and haven't gotten another one in 6 years.
posted by desjardins at 9:55 AM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Here in my part of California, the traffic court judges are actually attorneys that fill in for a set period of time. In my 20 year experience of family and friends contesting tickets, not a single one has ever been successful, regardless of the strategy, attitude, or merits of their case. The only ones who have gotten out of tickets do so when the officer who issued the citation fails to show up to court that day. In my area this has been at a rate of about 1 in 4 tickets.
posted by Rapunzel1111 at 10:00 AM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

In my experience, there are certain towns (speed trap towns) that, as long as you are polite and just admit that you did it, and have a fairly clean record, they will suspend the points but not the fine. They just want their money.
This probably wouldn't work for something serious like drunk driving, but for 5 or 10 mph over, it often works.
Plus, if the police officer doesn't show up you're usually safe.
It can be worth it to go to court, you might at least get your points dismissed, which can save you on insurance.
posted by H21 at 10:17 AM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

It cannot possibly hurt, and may very well help, to wear a full suit. Not just a shirt and tie, not a jacket with an open collar, but a suit and tie.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:25 AM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Seconding craven_morehead. I’ve only had one traffic ticket, that was in Philadelphia. My friend who was a Philly cop said to me “Wear a suit and tie and act as if you are appearing before the (US) Supreme Court. My friend also provided the explanation I was going to use, “I’m sure from where the officer was positioned it appeared that I disregarded a steady red signal. However the light turned red while I was in the intersection and it would have been illegal to stop in the middle of the intersection”.

It never got that far though, the judge looked at the ticket that said “Operator disregarded steady red signal”, looked at me in my suit, and said to me “There’s not much to go on here, dismissed.”
posted by Rob Rockets at 10:58 AM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Not sure if this is a practical question or strictly an informational one, but just as an FYI, even when a driver gets a citation dismissed, the "court costs" that will be charged are often as much as or more than the cost they would have paid by mailing a check in for the ticket before the court date. Obviously, there can be financial benefits to not having it on your insurance though.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:00 AM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

If it's available in your state, look into trial de novo or Trial By Written Declaration. Essentially, a trial-by-mail -- you send the judge a letter explaining yourself, and he/she decides. It saves you the courtroom visit. But it can also act as a rubber stamp exoneration because the prosecuting side might not be able to react.

On the other hand, courts know this, so it could just be a rubber stamp "guilty," too.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:01 AM on June 8, 2015

Once in high school I sat through several days of traffic court as an extracurricular class-related activity. I remember only one person who didn't get late fees added to his fines. It was a father who had forgotten to pay his bill because right after he got it in the mail, his wife had died and it had slipped his mind; he had been busy doing things like being a single parent and grieving.
posted by aniola at 11:13 AM on June 8, 2015

I saw a similar thing happen and only once: a guy who was late on his fines was asked by the judge for a very good reason for it.

Turns out the guy had been sent out west as a smokejumper and had been in the middle of some gigantic forest fire. The Judge agreed that was a pretty good reason and let him off. Extraordinary things do happen, but 99% of the rest of traffic court is numbingly dull and mechanical.
posted by jquinby at 11:25 AM on June 8, 2015

In CT where I lived previously, it was standard to contest your ticket and have it dismissed - I don't even remember needing a "good reason". I also accompanied a friend to do it in NY. When I moved to PA at one point and got a speeding citation, I tried contesting it and was surprised when I showed up in court and it was just me, the judge, and the officer who ticketed me (instead of the lineup of people doing the same thing I had seen before). They told me that this was a different kind of citation and that they would not dismiss it just because I was contesting it, but it would not go on my record. So the deal seems to vary by jurisdiction.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:28 AM on June 8, 2015

The one time I contested a traffic ticket (in Washington state), I got to hear the judge deal with a lot of other people who went before me. I think the judge reduced every single person's fine, no matter how lame the excuse, even if they were repeat offenders. He reduced my fine without even hearing my excuse. But clearly, based on the other answers here, you can't expect that everywhere.
posted by Redstart at 1:06 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

It really does depend on the judge, but here's my experience from dealing with one traffic court:

1. Some courts separate cases into those that are disputed and those that have an explanation. Disputed tickets are an all or nothing proposition -- you either prove the ticket was issued in error, for example you were speeding to pass, which is lawful -- or you pay it all. Cases with an explanation are just that, for example I had an emergency, I didn't know the roadway and made a mistake, I forgot my handicapped placard . . . etc. Those generally get reduced.

2. In general it helps a lot to be polite, well prepared -- e.g. bring your photos and documents -- and calm.

3. Be realistic. If the judge says they aren't going to reduce tickets for parking in handicapped spots or speeding in school zones, both no-nos in the court I experienced, and your ticket is for one of those things, you'll need a truly awesome explanation.

4. Be patient. This can take awhile in a court with a lot of business and only one judicial officer. I ate up a whole morning once waiting to explain to a judge (who did dismiss my citation) that I did have a parking pass for the spot I was in, and had been racing out to the lot with it at the same time the officer was writing my ticket, which he declined to withdraw.
posted by bearwife at 4:46 PM on June 8, 2015

My one experience was that I had a chance to explain myself but I also had a chance to talk to the cop. We changed my egregious speeding ticket from a speeding ticket to a parking violation and the just said that was fine and I pled, i think "no contest" to the parking violation. Court got the same $$ but I didn't get points on my license. Expensive, but saved me money in the long run.
posted by jessamyn at 9:03 PM on June 8, 2015

So this has happened to me the only two times I've gotten a speeding ticket - I show up on time, the police officer who gave me the tickets did not show up, it was immediately dismissed.
posted by hillabeans at 2:26 PM on June 9, 2015

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