For Part 3 of our series on fighting traffic tickets in court, it’s time to prepare to contest your ticket. After receiving a traffic ticket, the first big decision is whether to contest it in court. For most moving violations such as speeding, most people just pay the fine. Some estimates put the number of drivers who fight their citations at less than five percent, one of the reasons traffic tickets are such a excellent and reliable source of revenue for so many cities and towns.
In many cases, giving in so easily is a mistake because the only check-and-balance to the traffic justice system is defendants willing to exercise their rights. If nothing else, it forces the system to earn the penalty money it takes in. Collecting that revenue is important to the local prosecuting authority. Want proof? Rhode Island law offers drivers who have had a clean driving record for 3+ years the ability to plead no contest (“good driving record statute”) to many moving violations and pay only court costs. In many cases, you may have been able to win outright in court, but this compromise allows the municipality to collect at least some revenue, prevents the time spent on a trial, eliminates the need to pay the officer to show up to trial (which erases much of the ticket’s “profit”), and prevents you from being able to claim the statute for 3 years. Creating a path of least resistance to collect fines and process more cases is part of the game.
Your first big decision is what to plead. If you want any other outcome than just to pay the ticket and take your lumps, you must plead “not guilty.” Pleading “not guilty” doesn’t mean you did not commit the act for which you received the ticket. Instead, you may want to challenge the validity of a speed reading, or there may have been extenuating circumstances that justified your driving actions. The main takeaway is that to challenge a ticket or position yourself to negotiate a less harsh penalty, you have to start with a “not guilty” plea.
Some jurisdictions use the terminology “responsible,” “not responsible,” or “responsible with an explanation.” These are the same as guilty, not guilty, and no contest, in that order.
Another significant decision is when to consider hiring an attorney to represent you in court. If you are short on time, can’t make a personal appearance at the hearing (for an out-of-state ticket, for example), or are apprehensive about dealing with the ticket yourself, arranging for an attorney is an option to consider.
In most traffic ticket situations, this is not necessary. With a little bit of preparation and a lot of determination, you can fight your ticket yourself, and win.
Some exceptions might include charges that have serious consequences, such as a driver’s license suspension or jail time. Reckless driving and driving-under-the-influence cases are two examples where it is strongly recommended that you hire a qualified traffic law attorney.
If you choose to work with an attorney, you should talk to two or three to gauge not only cost and defense strategy but also to get comfortable with trial experience and the seriousness with which the lawyer takes your case.
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In almost all instances, an attorney will attempt to negotiate with the prosecution to reduce the penalty and/or fine associated with the violation. It is essential to understand that attorneys do not typically take traffic tickets through a formal trial. The cost of a trial is often prohibitive for a routine speeding ticket.
If you want an attorney to plea bargain your ticket to remove penalties or lower the fine, hire one who frequently works in the jurisdiction where the citation was issued and who may have a working relationship with the prosecution and courthouse staff. On the other hand, if you want to mount a serious challenge to the charges against you, an attorney who does not usually appear in that court and who is not fearful of the consequences of irritating the prosecutorial staff may provide a more aggressive defense.
Keep in mind that plea bargaining involves attorney fees that could reach hundreds of dollars for some crimes versus thousands of dollars for seriously challenging a ticket through a trial.
In the next installment, assuming you plan to fight your ticket, we will provide insight on how to go about preparing your defense and the tools at your disposal to do so.