Traffic court’s a lot like buying a car — because there’s lots of haggling involved.
Or should be — if you’re smart.
Most people either just send in the fine — or go to court and make no real attempt to bob and weave their way out of the ticket.
Cattle do the same thing on their way to McDonald’s.
Even if you have a perfect driving driving record, each and every ticket is worth fighting with everything you’ve got. Reason? The presence of a single “moving violation” on your driving record — no matter how minor (or bogus) — can end up costing you hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars over the three-to-five year period it will be visible on your DMV rap sheet.
Your insurance company is all about maximizing the revenue stream — just like the cop who gave you the ticket — and even though your piddling 66 mph in a 55 zone “speeding” ticket doesn’t in any fair-minded way mean you’re an unsafe driver, the insurance company will use it as a pretext for claiming that you are — and will jack your rates up accordingly. If they hit you with a 10 percent surcharge annually for the three years most DMVs will keep a moving violation “active” on your record, the dollars add up fast — and can end up being several times the cost of the actual fine itself. Perhaps more than the cost of hiring a good traffic attorney, even.
And the real catch is what happens if, during that three-year period when the first ticket is active, you have the bad luck to get pinched a second time. Now you have two moving violations on your record — and the “points” that go along with them. While some insurance companies will not mug you over a single moving violation, few leave you alone after number two.
Which is why it’s crucial to fight that first one — no matter how small it may seem.
SO, WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Basically, your options come down to dealing with it yourself or hiring a traffic lawyer to do it for you. The first option is obviously cheaper — and can work, too. But the second is more likely to succeed, simply because an experienced lawyer knows how the game is played.
If you want to go it on your own, you can do the following:
* Continuances: Many states allow any person charged with a moving violation an automatic “continuance” — which means you can get the court to change your original court date to a later date, often simply by asking that it do so. Why do this? Several possible reasons:
One, let’s say you got a ticket in fall and the original court date is in November. By getting a continuance that pushes the court date into the new year, you might avoid losing the “plus” point that some states give drivers for going a calendar year free of convictions for any moving violations.
Two, you might just throw a monkey wrench into the bureaucracy. Paperwork does get lost; the cop might not show to your second, “continued” court date. If either happens, the charge against you might get dropped entirely.
Three, you have absolutely nothing to lose by doing this. It’s free — and it’s a good way to game the system, just as the system is trying to game you.
* Driving School: Ask the judge — or the prosecuting/commonwealth’s attorney — about the possibility of agreeing to let you attend driving school and/or pay a fine in return for dropping the charge against you.
The critical thing is to avoid being convicted of a moving violation, for the reasons explained earlier. Many judges will “give you a break” (ha!) by allowing you to plead guilty to “defective equipment” or some other non-moving violation, pay a beefy fine or waste a Saturday at the DMV “driving school” — where you’ll spend eight hours listening to (and pretending to agree with) platitudes about the perfect virtue of all speed limits.
Any of these options is preferable to being convicted for the original moving violation because your insurance company won’t have a pretext for a rate hike. In some counties/states, certain charges aren’t reported to the DMV at all — especially if it’s an out-of-state ticket. Mostly, these include non-moving violations such as “defective equipment” — a common “lesser charge” that’s often assigned in lieu of the original moving violation.
Even the beefy fine’s not so bad, though — because it’s a one-time hit vs. the ongoing fleecing you’ll get for having even one moving violation on your driving record.
In some states, it’s even possible to take the DMV-authorized “driving school” online — which lets you avoid the hassle of spending an entire Saturday re-living high school detention. See trafficschoolonline.com for more information.)
* Hire a traffic lawyer: The cost to rent a legal eagle to handle a minor traffic case (normal speeding, not “reckless driving,” DUI or a major charge that has a mandatory court appearance and the possibility you might get thrown in the clink) is typically between $300 and $700. It sounds steep, but for all the reasons outlined previously, it can be money well spent — especially if you get another ticket at some point during the next three years.
It’s pretty easy to find a traffic lawyer in most areas; just Google the county/state in which your case will be tried and add the keywords “ticket” and “lawyer.” Look for one who has been doing this for a while and who regularly appears in the court where you’ll be appearing. The best defense lawyers are former prosecutors. Interview your prospect, ask him specifically how he will handle your case — and what his success rate is in getting charges like yours reduced or dropped.
If he wins, you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing the cop who cited you turn beet red with anger as you slip the noose.
And that is worth a lot more than the cost of any fine.