View Full Version : Can Someone Explain Traffic Court?
02-28-2007, 08:39 AM
Hi, folks -
A few weeks ago, I was involved in a modestly severe car accident, with no injuries to either side but substantial damage to both cars. The responding police officer issued me a ticket for Careless Driving, which in my state is associated with an $83 fine and two points on my driver's license. The officer told me at the time that he was strongly suggesting that I appear in court (no court appearance was required), at which time - given my previously pristine driving record and a few other factors - he said that the folks in charge would likely reduce the ticket to one with which there were no points associated.
My question is this: what will happen when I get to court? I've never been before, and don't know what the procedure will be like. Will I have to speak with anyone when I first arrive? Am I likely to appear in a courtroom at all? Will I be asked to speak, or asked any questions?
Any help would be much appreciated.
02-28-2007, 08:55 AM
You will appear at the time requested on the ticket (get there early if your court takes cases on a first come basis, but often they just go alphabetically), check in with the clerk, remove your hat and take a seat and wait for your name to be called.
During this time you will likely fill out a form asking you how you want to plea; guilty, innocent or no-contest. Most people plea no-contest, but IANAL and cannot tell you what the legal consequences of each plea are.
You will first be called to see the local prosecutor who can resolve your ticket on the spot without you having to see or talk to the judge.
If he can't resolve the issue to your liking then you can request to talk to the judge.
You will then be asked to go back to the seating area and wait for the judge to innitiate the court proceedings.
You will then be called (one at a time) and asked to stand before the court and present your case after the judge gives a brief summary of the infraction(s).
If you present any info that the judge believes to help your cause then you may end up with him passing down a;
different ruling than issued on the ticket,
a different $ amount,
a different points amount,
or thrown out of court.
You may also be asked if you need more time to pay the fine (if it sticks) and offered a suitable payment plan.
You may or may not have the other parties present at this time (the issuing cop and the person you hit in the accident). The cop will likely be there for sure.
02-28-2007, 09:06 AM
During this talk with the prosecutor you will be in an adjacent office with just the two of you. You can bring up any points that you think will help your cause, such as perfect driving record, road conditions, how you felt that day, if you were late for work, or being chased by a hit-man, etc.
Be relaxed, calm and honest and you have the best chance of buying off some of the charges. After you talk to the prosecutor he will offer you a pretty fair option (in most cases). You can accept the deal right there and be on your way. I would guess that about 50-75% of cases are resolved right there.
I believe you have the option of countering his offer, like if you are willing to pay more money to get the points reduced, or getting something of a lesser violation (for insurance purposes) and paying a higher fine.
02-28-2007, 09:24 AM
Procedures vary from state to state; I could nitpick Uncommon Sense's obviously fairly good summary of Wisconsin procedure on the basis of the different procedural methods used by New York and by North Carolina, but to what purpose? Unless someone familiar with the New Jersey traffic court system cares to handle that.
There's one basic point that tends to get overlooked here, though, and that is that procedurally a traffic offense is criminal, not civil. That is, it's not a lawsuit where the court adjudges whether you in fact owe Barney the $700 he claims for the lousy repair job he did in one afternoon, which fell apart three days later. It's a situation where the state in its prosecutorial capacity alleges that you committed an offense, against which you may defend yourself. Hence, while traffic offenses are "barely off the grass" on a vertical scale of severity of offense, the same general rules apply as in a criminal trial, with a few exceptions (for example, if you can't be sent to jail for a substantial period, you're not entitled to a jury trial; if you were ticketed rather than arrested, Miranda safeguards don't really come into play; etc.).
But the key point is that, presumably following standard procedure, the police officer (a) felt himself obliged to ticket you for Careless Driving, and (b) believed that your case was such that a reduction to a lesser charge was something you might be entitled to. Now, you have the option of pleading guilty by mail -- which would cost you a fine and points -- or to appear and essentially plea bargain. You do not need to plead guilty -- though "going to trial" would consist of you entering a not guilty plea, the judge or the D.A. asking the police officer to tell what happened, you having a chance to explain why you're not guilty, and then the judge finding you guilty (possibly not guilty, but Anna Nicole's will didn't leave you anything either, and one's as likely as the other). However, if they can simplify this by reducing your charge to, say, "Failure to Keep Right" (always a fun choice) in exchange for your agreement to plead to it, that saves everyone time and heartache. Remember that your right to plead and the time and frustration of even a summary trial (described above) are weapons on your side, and you have room to negotiate.
(IANAL, and I am making general observations about how the law works in similar situations to the one you describe, not giving you legal advice, which I am not licensed to do and don't know the facts of your case well enough to give valid and useful legal advice even if I were licensed. While you probably don't need a lawyer for this, getting some specifics from someone who knows New Jersey traffic laws would be very useful for you.)
02-28-2007, 10:02 AM
Thanks to both of you for your responses. So it sounds like my best bet is to deal with this during my initial meeting with the prosecutor - any deal that ends up with no points on my license is ideal for me, even if I have to pay a higher fine, and there's something oddly compelling about the idea of having "Failure to Keep Right" on my Permanent Record.
And I haven't given up hope on Anna Nicole's will, either.
02-28-2007, 11:37 AM
I am going to be facing a speeding ticket soon (not even close to a reckless driving speed, but significantly over the limit) and have been looking into this. Apparently one thing it is common to get in a plea bargain is a driver's safety course. They are often cheaper if you are referred by the court than if you take them on your own and they can (I think) prevent you from getting points. You may wish to ask the prosecutor about it.
02-28-2007, 04:30 PM
To confound what others have said, I've been to traffic court 6 times, about every 5 years on average. Every single time the process has been different. The last three times were in the same jurisdiction as well, so I wouldn't feel confident in telling you what to expect even if restricted to that jurisdiction.
One thing that has not been mentioned: In some jurisdictions, traffic offenses are not handled by any sort of prosecutor. Instead, the police officer who issued the ticket represents "the people". Usually this makes it far less likely that you will be able to plea bargain or whatever, as you are dealing with the same person that felt you deserved the citation you got in the first place. The upside is that the ticket will be automatically dismissed if the cop doesn't appear in court. However, in your case, since the cop basically told you to fight the ticket, this may not be an issue.
02-28-2007, 04:40 PM
I'm in California, so maybe this doesn't apply, but if you wish to have a trial on a traffic ticket here, it's advisable to appear at the traffic window at the courthouse before the deadline date and schedule a trial. Otherwise you will have to go to an arraignment which is a waste of time. Again, I don't know if the procedure is the same there, but I thought I'd throw it out there.
02-28-2007, 09:48 PM
You will appear at the time requested on the ticket (get there early if your court takes cases on a first come basis, but often they just go alphabetically), check in with the clerk, remove your hat and take a seat and wait for your name to be called.Can't stress this enough...
My time to appear was 10:10, So I showed up 30 minutes early. DAMN good thing because the judge called me up at about 9:55 asked me what happened, I explained, judge dropped my ticket from $120 to $47 (no such thing as points in WA). I was out before I was even supposed to show up. Moral having been had I been "on-time" I would have already had a default judgment against me.
For my second ticket the DA let me defer my ticket which meant I payed in full, but it was not reported to the my insurance company as long as I stayed ticket less for the next full year (I did).
Remember this is your first time, but not their's. It's OK to be confused because so are 80% of the other people they'll be seeing that day. Just walk up, be honest, it's a piece of cake.
04-18-2007, 12:20 PM
Follow up: It certainly pays to take it to court! Here in Virginia (or at least my area of it) there are no lawyers in most of traffic court (if you aren't facing jail time). It is just you and the cop who ticketed you standing up in front of a judge (with the rest of the court watching of course). Before I tell you the specifics, let me relate a little story:
So I get there a half hour or so early and they start out with taking some pleas where the defendant is in jail appearing via a television signal. Weird. Next they have a bond hearing for a guy with a huge rap sheet. This is just traffic court, but the guy was driving without a license for the umpteenth time and was facing some real jail time. One of the attorneys starts reading his huge list of priors and ends by saying that he had shown up to court each time and should therefore be granted bond (only then did I discover he was the defense attorney, not prosecution).
The judge says, "I am having a hard time with the magnitude of his criminal history. Not to mention there are some things that are just jumping out at me here..."
Defense tries to cut him off with, "I know what you are looking at and can assure you..."
The judge ignores him and continues, "...Theft of a Human Corpse for example."
The guy did not make bond.
It did put the judge in a good mood though, and he spent the rest of the day joking in between cases with the bailiff, saying, "Do you suppose it was someone he knew?"
Anyway, my time comes up and I get before the judge. He reads the charge and asks how I plead. I say guilty and he asks if there is anything I want to say for myself. I say, "I would ask that your honor consider my previous good driving history and consider the possibility of a suspended sentence or driver's education as potential sentences."
He then asks the cop how the stop went and the cop said that I was very polite and cooperative and mentioned that I was not aware of the speed I was traveling. NOTE: Everyone in a similar instance who had the cop say they were cooperative did as well as I did, those who were not cooperative did not do so well.
He then checks my record and gives me 6 months parole. Pretty much I come back in six months and if I have no other offenses they throw the charge out.
04-18-2007, 12:32 PM
Good responses so far.
In our court (Cleveland Muni) there will usually be neither a prosecutor nor a police officer at your first appearance, which is an arraignment. Arriving early will probably mean your case is handled sooner. Probably 75% of all minor traffic offenses plead out at this stage, with a fine imposed and no other penalty or consequences. The other 25% go before a judge (or a magistrate, like me, who's handling the judge's docket that day). At that time, depending upon your driving record, the prosecutor may offer you a plea that will include no points against your license. A frequent legal-fiction plea is to Unsafe Motor Vehicle, Cleve. Codif. Ord. 437.01, which carries no points. Sometimes the prosecutor will make it a condition of the plea that you pay the maximum fine ($150 in Ohio for a minor misdemeanor). If no police officer appears and the case is either a minor misdemeanor or has been set for trial that day, the prosecutor will not object if the court dismisses the case.
If an accident resulted from your alleged traffic offense, or if you were a jerk to the police, you'll find that the prosecutor and court are much less inclined to resolve things to your satisfaction.
04-18-2007, 03:04 PM
Thanks to both of you for your responses. So it sounds like my best bet is to deal with this during my initial meeting with the prosecutor ....
Well, except that in NJ there may not be any such meeting, as Kevbo mentioned. In CA such things are unheard of, except in DUI and similar misdomeanor cases.
04-18-2007, 07:40 PM
Perhaps Loach can talk about New Jersey
04-18-2007, 09:04 PM
You are supposed to say my name three times to summon me.
04-18-2007, 09:12 PM
Loach, Loach, LOACH!
04-18-2007, 09:38 PM
Each local court is run a bit different. Mostly depending on the size of the court/volume of cases. The best thing to do is to get there a bit early and get an idea of how things are run. In general you get there and check in with the clerk. Either you get on line to see the prosecutor or wait for your name to be called. At some point the judge will give a speech outlining everyones rights (right to a trial, appeal process etc) The judge will generally give the prosecutor time to do his thing and will take care of all the pleas first. In my jurisdiction we have to make every ticket that involves an accident "court appearence required", but that is not a law, just what our judge requires. Most prosecutors have no problem accepting plea deals to lower the points. With an accident they usually ask the other party if they have a problem with downgrading it, if they show up. If you plead guilty to a lesser charge for no points make sure you ask for a civil reservation. This is a stipulation that says even though you are pleading guilty to a lesser charge the fact that you are entering a plea agreement can not be used against you in a civil trial. The other party may not be complaining of an injury now but they have two years to develop one and sue you. The civil reservation is usually automatic but it pays to make sure it is put in the record.
Now for the bad news. It is a myth (well partially a myth) that towns write tickets for the money. Almost all of the money goes directly to the state. Why that is important will soon become clear to you. We used to use a few different statutes for plea agreements. They were used strictly because as written you got no points when convicted. For instance we used the statute for obstructing traffic for this purpose. A few years ago a judge ruled that this was illegal. Basically people were pleading guilty to charges that did not fit the circumstances and that was not allowed. There was a bit of a problem for a little while until the state legislature came up with a very good law. 39:4-97.2 driving an automobile in an unsafe manner. It is strictly for plea agreements. It can not be written on the road. You can only use it twice in a five year period. It is about a $100 fine and no points. We used that for a while and everything went smooth. Then the state decided that they weren't making enough money off it. They added a one time surcharge and some other fees to the fine. Now it will cost you $435 to plea bargain down to a no point ticket. Blame your state legislature. I don't know any cops who like this law (or prosecutors). You have to make a decision as to if it will be cheaper to take the points and the small fine or take the $435 hit. A defensive driver course will take off those two points.
Let me know if there are any questions I haven't covered. If you let me know what jurisdiction the ticket will be heard in it might help me.
04-18-2007, 09:42 PM
Loach, Loach, LOACH!
Thanks but that wasn't really necessary ;) . I was busy typing and dealing with children that should be going to bed.
04-19-2007, 09:48 AM
In Ohio, the police officer can choose whether to cite you under a muni ordinance or under state law. Most traffic offenses are citable under either. There are five levels of misdemeanors under Ohio law, and it usually makes little difference to the driver as to whether she's cited under an ordinance or the Ohio Revised Code. Also, a "no contest" plea cannot be used against you in a later civil case here; no "civil reservation" is necessary.
04-19-2007, 10:31 AM
Now for the bad news. It is a myth (well partially a myth) that towns write tickets for the money. Almost all of the money goes directly to the state.Here's how the exceptions work. I used to work for a publisher of municipal codes. A lot of my work involved simply copying and pasting verbatim portions of the state code into local ordinances for the local councils to adopt. (This was pre-computer. We copied with Xerox, took scissors to the paper, and pasted with glue sticks.) The reason being, if a municipality got jurisdiction over traffic violations and such in their town by enacting the relevant provisions in their code, they got to keep the fines. This was in Ohio but we did codification for nearby states too.
04-19-2007, 10:43 AM
Here's how the exceptions work. I used to work for a publisher of municipal codes. A lot of my work involved simply copying and pasting verbatim portions of the state code into local ordinances for the local councils to adopt. (This was pre-computer. We copied with Xerox, took scissors to the paper, and pasted with glue sticks.) The reason being, if a municipality got jurisdiction over traffic violations and such in their town by enacting the relevant provisions in their code, they got to keep the fines. This was in Ohio but we did codification for nearby states too.
That can be done here too. I'm sure there are some towns in New Jersey that pressure their officers to write the township ordinance instead of the state law. However, I personally have no knowledge of any.
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