Many people who get traffic tickets will simply pay them. They get points on their licenses and move on with their lives. If you don’t want to do that, you could hire an attorney to fight the ticket for you, but you may also be able to successfully fight the ticket without hiring counsel. There are no guarantees here, but this is how it could work.
Ground rules: I am talking about basic civil infraction tickets. Say, speeding 10 over or things like running a stop sign or making an illegal turn. If you ran over a group of school children or smashed your car in anger through the front window of the DMV, you should probably hire an attorney.
What I am describing here is most specific to Michigan but many states have similar systems. First, read the ticket (front and back). You are doing this so you know what you are charged with and what the process asks you to do. The ticket will usually say how many days you have to respond. Do not put this off. If you do not respond in time you can be held responsible for the ticket, more fines and costs will be added to what you would have had to pay, and a warrant may even be issued for your arrest.
Some states ask you to enter a plea of some sort when you respond to the court. Do not plead responsible or guilty or whatever your state calls the bad thing. Not guilty or Not responsible is how this process starts. The court will then give you a date.
Some states have two kinds of hearings you can ask for: an informal and a formal. Sometimes, if you do not like the outcome of the informal, you can then take your case to the formal. The ticket will explain if this is the case. If so, ask for an informal hearing. Why not? You get two bites at the apple, as they say.
You then go to court. Dress nice. I cannot stress this enough. I have seen people in court wearing flip flops, biker tights, and even a “I’m Bart Simpson, Who the Hell are you?” t-shirt. You cannot be taking the system seriously if you dress like that.
Get there early. Ideally, you will be in the line of people who are lined up at the courthouse doors when they open. And guys, seriously: Take off your hat when you are indoors. Especially if you are prone to wearing a baseball hat backwards.
Go inside and check in. That is, let the court clerk know you are there. They will tell you that a prosecutor (or whoever handles these in your jurisdiction) is in a conference room or some such. You will then probably stand in line. The prosecutor will have your file. Your file contains your ticket and your driving record. The officer may or may not be there. They may even be on call (meaning they can be there if they need to be).
I am not going to give you any magic incantations to get the ticket thrown out. Your best bet is to see if you can get the charges reduced. This will hinge on several factors. How clean is your driving record? (This is huge.) How old are you? (A young person with a clean driving record is not as impressive as an older person with one.) What are you accused of? (10 over is not as bad as 20 over.) Did you give the cop a hard time? (I kid you not.)
When called, walk into the office and shake hands with the prosecutor. Introduce yourself. Very politely say, “I got a ticket for [insert offense here]. I was hoping we might be able to reduce that to [something lesser] because of my good driving record [or other mitigating factors].” Do not be confrontational. You are not here to argue that you will go to court and kick the officer’s lying ass, or that everyone was speeding that day.
In every jurisdiction there are lesser offenses prosecutors can substitute in for whatever you are charged with. Ones with fines but fewer (or no) points. You want one of these. Speeding becomes blockading traffic and so on. Or, if you are charged with a four point offense, they might be willing to drop it to a two point offense. Keep in mind that while the points can usually be reduced, the fines rarely disappear. Does this surprise you? The points don’t help them - but the money does.
If the prosecutor won’t cut a deal, ask him/her to speak to the police officer. Sometimes, if you were nice during the traffic stop, the officer will go to bat for you. If the two of them won’t budge, have the hearing. You’re there anyway.
And, if you see the officer in the hall before you speak to the prosecutor you may be able to make some headway by speaking to him or her first. Politely approach, shake hands and introduce yourself. You say roughly the same thing but it would be more like, “You gave me a ticket for . I was hoping we might be able to reduce that to something lesser so I could keep the points off my record.” If the officer is inclined, he/she may go in and ask the prosecutor to cut you a deal.
The bulk of the run-of-the-mill tickets get reduced in bargains like this. Why? Prosecutors often have 100 files to dispose of and time to only try 10 of them. The other 90 have to go away somehow. The lesser ones usually get the deals.. But there is a lot of wiggle room in there. Every case the prosecutor can resolve by way of agreement is one less that has to be dealt with later.
Some states also offer diversion programs where those with clean driving records can attend classes or simply stay out of trouble for a while. That will cost you money but the points and the ticket will disappear if you successfully complete whatever it is they tell you to do.
Many people hire attorneys for tickets because good attorneys know the courts, the prosecutors and the judges and know what kinds of outcomes you can expect from each. On your own, you take your chances and see what happens.
I have written about traffic tickets now several times and invariably, after I do, readers comment about how they have successfully dealt with tickets - and these comments come from all over the U.S. And, I have handled hundreds of tickets. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. A guy with 14 points on his license getting 6 points’ worth of tickets reduced to two. A drunk driving charge reduced to careless driving. And reckless driving jury trials.
Of course, if you really are guilty and feel like ‘fessing up and paying your debt to society, by all means skip this and plead responsible and pay the ticket. Just do it in a timely manner.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation.
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