Your Legal Rights in Traffic Court

Just yesterday, you were stopped by a city police officer and issued a citation for running a red light. You are pretty sure you did no such thing. You could take the easy way out and just pay the ticket, but if you do, you will accumulate points on your driving record, which could lead an increase in your insurance premium. Should you hire an attorney and take your case to traffic court?

Before deciding what to do, it is important to understand exactly what traffic court is, what it is not, and what your rights and responsibilities are in taking your case to trial. Special tribunals known as traffic court only hear cases involving moving violations under the state’s motor vehicle code. These moving violations are punishable by fines, not jail time. Traffic court also generally exists only in large municipalities such as Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In less populous areas, Magistrates or District Court Judges, who also deal with minor crimes and preliminary hearings in misdemeanor and felony cases, hear traffic violation matters. 

Under the law in most jurisdictions, moving violations are considered summary offenses. While a conviction in these cases will not create a criminal record for you, you can end up suffering major repercussions such as points on your driving record, increased insurance premiums, and loss of driving privileges. Because of possible detrimental repercussions, when charged with a moving violation, you are entitled to take your case to trial in traffic court.

Of course, you can take a less confrontational approach and pay the fine levied on the citation. Understand, however, that paying the fine means you are pleading guilty to the underlying offense. Once you plead guilty, all of the consequences of doing so will take place and you may not be able to change your mind at a later date and invoke your right to go to traffic court.

Most citations include steps that should be followed in order to request a trial. Essentially, it involves filing the proper paperwork with traffic court and posting bond by paying the fine. If you win your case, the fine will be refunded. The traffic court will notify you of the trial date by mail. If you do not appear at the trial without requesting a continuance, you may be found guilty in absentia. 

You should always properly prepare your case before going to traffic court. The easiest way to do this is by hiring an attorney who is well versed in traffic violation law. He or she can give you the best advice on how to prepare your case. An attorney can also be your advocate in court. 

If you decide not to hire an attorney, you should make sure that you are thoroughly familiar with traffic court rules in your jurisdiction, because not doing so could have adverse consequences. For example, you have the right to face your accuser. Many traffic courts, however, require that you file notice prior to trial asking that the citing officer be present at the hearing. If you do not file this notice, the officer may not be present and his testimony may be presented only through his notes and the citation. If you file the proper notice and the officer does not appear, the charges against you may be dismissed. 

As in any case, you have a right to obtain discovery (the evidence the prosecution has against you), prior to trial. To obtain discovery, you must file a written request with the court. Evidence obtained through the discovery process, such as the citing officer’s notes, can be important when preparing your case.

Traffic court is presided over by a judge who is often elected to this position and may or may not be an attorney. The case moves forward as would any trial, except you do not have a right to a jury. If you lose in traffic court, your appeal to a higher court would be de novo, meaning, you may try the case again before a jury, if you so choose.