Unless you are part of the sub-species of humanity that would rather die than receive a traffic ticket, you are likely to end up in traffic court at some point in your life. Traffic court is an area within the law where you consistently see people from all walks of life: young, old, rich, poor, and everything in between. They are normal people, just like you, and they have all lived to tell the tale. Presumably.
Some people see traffic tickets as a relatively small problem in life. "Get in line, pay your fine, you're done." However, small problems become big problems in such situations. You make an uninformed decision, like paying a fine without understanding what it means, or you miss an important step on the road to putting this ticket behind you, and the next thing you know, your driver's license is suspended. Little things in life, like getting to work on time or picking your kids up from school, become big issues.
What you need is a step-by-step plan to approaching a traffic ticket situation so that you don't run into trouble that could have been avoided. In this article, we provide a checklist that we hope will optimize your chances of beating a traffic ticket at each level of the process, from beginning to end. We also give tips on what steps you could do on your own and when it is recommended that you have a lawyer.
Before we begin...
It is important to note that the information in this article is based on Illinois Traffic Law, with a focus on the tendencies, practices and procedures of Cook County Traffic Courts. If you are not in Illinois, you can still benefit from this article, as many of the items on the checklist are of a general nature. Just be sure to learn the specific rules of the state where your traffic court is located.
The Checklist on How to Beat a Traffic Ticket
Without further ado, here is a checklist of what we believe are the top 10 steps/considerations for beating a traffic ticket.
1. Be kind to police officers.
Police officers can be jerks. They can also be very kind. Believe it or not, under the badge and blue, police officers are human beings. They are as different and diverse as the rest of us. Put simply, they are people, and people naturally like those that are kind to them.
The memory that a police officer has of you could make the difference in your case. As an apparently wise person once said, "the police officer has to like you, and then forget you the moment you're out of his sight." The "forget you" part is important and is explained in more detail down the list.
For our purposes, it doesn't matter if the good officer is smiling or frowning when he gets to you. Be kind, take your ticket, and proceed to number two below.
2. Request a court date.
Soon after your heart-to-heart with our friend, the police officer, you should be given a pretty little form with tiny writing on it (pictured just below). Somewhere in this delightful reading material there are three options that you have to choose from. One of these options has a lower dollar amount than the other ones (usually $120, but it could vary). The option says that if you pay that amount, your case is finished and you do not have to come to court.
Sounds like a good deal right? Many unfortunate people have thought so in the past. Until they find out that their $120 bought them a big, fat CONVICTION, which they didn't know was the case until the Secretary of State suspended their license (the form mentions a conviction, but, surprisingly, people often miss it). It's very tricky, the way the courts write those forms...
Anyway, the point is that you should skip down to option three and request a court date. You have a good chance of receiving less than a conviction and protecting your license. The only time that it is okay to pay in the mail is if they offer you "traffic safety school" or some other form of "supervision". These would not be convictions and, therefore, would not be reported to the Secretary of State. If this circumstance is an option for you, it is option number two on the form (see second picture). "Supervision" is explained in more detail down the list.
3. Be mindful of your record.
If you are reading this article because you are worried about your first traffic ticket, then your record is not an issue. However, for those seasoned veterans that have gotten enough traffic tickets to know which judges to avoid, be warned: the longer your record, the harder it becomes to fight your tickets. Of course, you would already know that.
The most important thing, in terms of your license, is to keep convictions off your record. Convictions lead to license suspensions. If you are over 21-years-old, the Secretary of State moves to suspend your license if you have three convictions within a twelve-month period. (See traffic ticket convictions). If you are under 21, the Secretary of State will suspend your license if you have two convictions within a twenty-four month period.
4. Go to court on time.
This is practical advice. Show up to court on time, check in, and be respectful. The sooner you get there, the sooner you could leave. Usually. If you show up late and the judge has already called your name, expect to hear some fireworks when your name is finally called again. Add the fact that the judge, like the police officer, is human too (go figure), and you might be penalized for not showing respect for the court and wasting time.
If you were allowed to bring your cellphone in, PLEASE, put it on "silent". I could tell you stories...
5. "Guilty" or "not guilty"? - That is the ONLY question.
Here is a familiar skit in traffic court:
JUDGE (routinely): "You have a ticket for ________. 'Guilty' or 'not guilty'?"
DEFENDANT (anxious): "Here's what happened: the cop stopped me going down a hill. He said I was going 15 over, but I was only going 5 over..."
Or, "I had my phone in my hand, but I never held it up to my head." Or, "I ran the red light, but it was dark and there was nobody around." Blurting out facts that show your guilt does not help you. All that does is prove the prosecutor's case for him/her. A traffic court judge once said, "There is not a fish that was caught that didn't open its mouth first." Or something of that nature.
Anyway, if you answer "guilty," the judge will immediately ask the prosecutor for your background. The result will depend on what the prosecutor says. If you have a good record, the judge is likely to go easy on you. If not, that's a different story.
On the other hand, if you answer "not guilty," the judge will hold your case until the end of the call. At that time, you will have a trial, unless the officer on the case has better things to do (but more on that in number six).
No matter what your answer is, this is a situation where it is helpful to have a lawyer. When you plead "guilty" alone, you are leaving the outcome of your case to the mercy of the court. You don't get to negotiate with the prosecutor beforehand. A lawyer does. He/she can come to an agreement with the prosecutor and discuss it with you before you even step up before the judge. It's nice to know what to expect.
If you plead "not guilty," you will be having a trial about thirty minutes later. Lawyers know the correct way to question police officers and conduct the trial, while the average person does not. If you insist on going through with the trial on your own, the judge may allow you to tell your story in a narrative, rather than directly question the officer. People seem to be more comfortable with this option.
6. Is the police officer there?
To be practical, once more, the police officer that wrote your traffic ticket is usually the only witness against you. If he/she is not in court, but you are, there is nobody to testify against you and the prosecution cannot prove their case. If you plead "not guilty," the judge may dismiss your case. Congratulations.
However, PLEASE DO NOT answer the "Guilty or not guilty?" question with, "Is the cop here?" All you are going to do is make the judge angry, which is not good for you. First of all, the judge has the power to grant a continuance for the police officer to show up, which the judge often does. Second, just because you don't see the police officer in the courtroom, does not mean that he is not somewhere else in the building.
A lawyer can verify whether the police officer is present. If he is not present, the lawyer can attempt to get your case called and dismissed, and you get to leave early. A local lawyer will likely know the judge's tendencies in these situations, for dismissals or continuances, and he can advise you either way. The other option is to wait until the end of the call yourself and see if the police officer is there for the trial. If the police officer is not there, wait to see whether the judge will dismiss your case or give a continuance.
7. Does the police officer remember you?
In section number one of this checklist, I mentioned it was important for the police officer to forget you, and here is where it pays off: If a police officer doesn't remember you or your particular traffic stop, he cannot testify against you honestly in your case, can he?
The reality is that by the time you get a court date it has been about a month, often longer, since the police officer last saw you at the traffic stop. How many traffic stops has the officer made since he last saw you? What number of individuals has he ran into, traffic stop or not, in the last month? That officer is going to have a hard time remembering you UNLESS YOU GIVE HIM A REASON TO.
For those of you that feel the urge to cuss the police officer out, or tell him/her that they must not be getting enough oxygen to their brain, simply take a deep breath and practice self-control. The last thing you want in traffic court is to hear the police officer say, "Oh, yeah, I remember him!" He/she would probably follow that utterance with a specific description of you. Not good.
If the prosecutor will not offer anything less than a conviction, because of what the police officer has told him/her, you would have to either go to trial or accept the conviction. In this situation, a lawyer can advise you either way. Maybe he/she can even pull out their negotiation badge and get you something less than a conviction.
Save yourself the stress. Make sure the police officer doesn't remember you.
8. Can a motion be made to dismiss the ticket(s)?
Once in a while, there is a mistake on the traffic ticket itself or a violation of court procedure. In these situations, it is sometimes possible to make a motion before the judge and get the case dismissed. Although it seems to be getting harder and harder, it's worth a shot. A lawyer would know what to look for.
9. Know the possible outcomes.
Here are the possible dispositions in your case:
I don't think anybody's ever complained about getting their case dismissed. Have a nice day.
b. Community Service
This is also a great deal. If you are young and do not have a record, you may be given the opportunity to do community service with a non-profit organization. If you complete it successfully, your case is dismissed.
Supervision means that you are under the court's jurisdiction for a set amount of time (usually four months). If you do not commit any further violation in that time, your case is dismissed and you are discharged. If you commit another violation, theoretically, the court could notify you and assign a hearing date. If the prosecutor proves the violation occurred, the court can impose any judgment the law allows. (Circuit Court of Cook County; see "What is supervision for a traffic ticket?"). Although there are costs involved, supervision accomplishes your main objective: Avoid a conviction.
A conviction is a conviction. It is reported to the Secretary of State and is one step in the wrong direction. Although convictions are undesirable, you could deal with one conviction. The trouble comes when you let them pile on to the point that your license is suspended. If your license is suspended, many times a lawyer is able to reopen your case and work to have your suspension lifted. Don't lose hope.
10. Take a deep breath.
Whatever the outcome, it's not the end of the world. Use this checklist to put yourself in the best possible situation to handle your traffic ticket and then move on to better things.
If you are in need of a local traffic attorney to assist you with any area of traffic law, visit our website at rjshalabilaw.com.