I recently spent the day with my good friend who went to court on a traffic ticket here in my hometown…hey, I’m retired so I have a lot of free time on my hands. I was there as moral support armed with a little bit of knowledge that I have from some of the memorable and yet unpleasant experiences I have had over the years trying to fight a ticket in court.
Well, there’s some good news and some bad news here to report. The good news is, of course, you get your day in court before the judge. The bad news is that nothing I have ever experienced has really changed. You probably can appear in court until you are blue in the face, you’re more than likely to be ruled guilty as charged and you’ll have to pay a fine or worse. It may be even much worse than you think. So today I’d like to write about whether you need an attorney for traffic tickets.
The System is Really “Big League”
If you have ever gotten a traffic ticket, like a speeding ticket, a drunken driving ticket, or a ticket related to an accident, then you probably have received from one to a dozen solicitations from lawyers who make a living representing people like you and me in traffic court. These guys practice this kind of law exclusively and sometimes handle dozens of these cases a week.
The business of traffic fines and convictions has become really important and not for the reasons that seem most obvious. If you think that serving “justice” and “punishing” those who commit a wrong is the reason why traffic court has become so important or that compensating “victims” for their damages is the reason, think again. The real reason may just be this: traffic court is a huge money maker for local municipalities and in today’s market of high expense costs for towns to provide services without sending the tax rates through the roof, traffic court is a big way to fund their budget! You have seen more things like police checkpoints and even the dreaded cameras that monitor traffic to issue tickets all over the USA in the past 10 years. The bottom line is this: increased revenue demands have led to an increased number of traffic tickets issued, most specifically speeding tickets.
Can an Attorney Really Help You in Court?
The answer is surprisingly a “yes” here. Having said that, it’s surprising to know that about 9 out of 10 people don’t use an attorney and another 90% just plead guilty and send in their tickets and pay their fine.
Attorneys can help. It’s simple really. They know which tickets they can get dismissed and they know “how” to get them dismissed. They seem to know all the rules and technicalities that you don’t know, and if your driving record isn’t a good one, they can help keep you from a conviction on your record by plea bargaining.
When your ticket is perfectly detailed and written properly there is little that you can do about the result. Plea bargaining yourself is a possibility but an attorney is more likely to get that result and you may want to consider the value of not having a conviction on your record!
A True and Personal Story of My Own
I’m a pretty good driver, if I say so myself. But about 5 years ago, I got a couple of traffic tickets (only one of them truly warranted) that really soured me on the process.
In one instance, I got a moving violation in very well know NJ town on my way home from work. I was traveling on a two-lane highway and was stopped by a patrol car for crossing over the “yellow line” in the middle of the road. Really? I was in moderate traffic going no more than 20 miles an hour (below the limit) and when I saw the red lights flashing, I stopped. I was the only car that did.
After being questioned by the officer, I realized it was going to be her word against mine since no one else had seen it happen and all of the other drivers were long gone from the scene. I decided that I would “fight” the ticket in court and so I pled not guilty. After all, if I had truly been over the line I would have sideswiped another vehicle. I truly believe the officer was mistaken at best, or making it up at the worst.
My Day in Court
When my day in the court arrived, I thought I had won the case by default. Not only did the officer fail to show up (she was on vacation if you can believe that!), but they had some of my information incorrect on the ticket. Making an error on a ticket and failure to show as a witness almost always mean the case will be dismissed when the officer does that kind of thing…if you have an attorney representing you.
But a funny thing happened, to my surprise. My case was simply postponed and my appeal for dismissal not granted. I didn’t have an attorney and the judge just simply ruled to reschedule my case, at my total inconvenience.
Even more interesting though is this fact. From the minute I signed into the courtroom until the moment I appeared in front of the judge (a period of hours I can tell you even though I had a court time of 9 am scheduled), I was asked at least 5 times if I wanted to “talk” to the prosecutor about a plea bargain. The court was more interested in a conviction through a plea than anything else.
The “Cost” of Justice
It seems that in almost every case involving traffic court, it will cost you money no matter the outcome. If you have an attorney, it will cost you some money. You can get a free legal consultation from an attorney who specializes in traffic court, but you most likely won’t get enough information to help you win the case. I tried that myself and came to that conclusion. The fees you will pay for legal representation can vary widely depending on where you live. Here in NJ (NYC metro area, ugh!) even a simple one-time appearance can cost up to $200. Around the country, my research says that it averages about $75.
But here’s the thing, a conviction in court may cost you even more than that. There’s the fine, court costs, and even points on your driving record. Those points can lead to increases in your insurance costs and even surcharges from the state…and that’s a gift that keeps on giving. In some cases, those points can lead to years of surcharges from the state and huge increases in your cost of coverage. That number can be thousands of dollars per year.
When the Gavel Falls, What’s the Result?
If you have to face a court because of a driving violation, I’d recommend hiring an attorney. This decision comes to me after years of trying to do it myself and suffering the consequences. If you have a driving record that’s less than stellar, you may be at serious risk for things like the surcharges and even loss of license which can wreak havoc with your life. Paying an attorney to handle your case can at the least steer clear of points on your record that threaten those things. Spending a bit upfront on your case may save you a lot in the long run on your insurance costs.
I hope you won’t ever have to deal with this kind of incident, but if you drive you probably will eventually. Have you ever had to appear in court due to a traffic violation? Did you represent yourself or hire an attorney? What was the outcome of your case and did you suffer long term consequences?