If you've received a traffic ticket that you feel you didn't deserve, you may wonder whether it's worth your time to go to court or simply pay the fine. Traffic violations can be difficult to fight, particularly if it's your word against the word of the arresting officer. For this reason, many people who receive traffic tickets don't bother to contest their tickets, even though they believe a court appearance might clear their record of the violation. If you are concerned about your driving record and protecting your automobile insurance, or if there are unusual circumstances (such as, you received a speeding ticket while rushing someone to the hospital); think over your decision carefully.
All traffic charges are either violations or crimes. Violations (formerly called “infractions”), are the less serious matters, such as speeding or failure to stop at a stop sign. Violations are not considered crimes because there is no potential jail sentence. You have fewer rights on a traffic violation than a traffic crime. When charged with a violation only, you have the right to a trial, but your case will be heard by a judge; there is no right to a jury trial. Also, if you are charged only with a violation, you have no right to a court appointed attorney because there is no possibility of your going to jail or prison. However, you may hire your own attorney.
Traffic crimes, such as DUII or Reckless Driving, are usually misdemeanors punishable by fines of up to $6,250 and up to one year in a county jail. In extreme cases, DUII can be a felony as well, punishable by lengthy prison sentences and fines up to $125,000 if you have been convicted for DUIIs in the past or there are particularly bad facts involved in your case. There can also be a license suspension and probation conditions. There will be a six-person jury trial, unless you decide you don't want a jury to hear the case and are willing to let a judge decide the case. If you are accused of a traffic crime you have the same rights as in any criminal case. You have the right to be represented by an attorney. If you can’t afford to hire your own, a lawyer will be appointed for you. You have the right to a jury trial and many other rights your lawyer will explain to you.
To plead not guilty to a violation, you must usually make two separate court appearances. First, there is the arraignment, which is also called the first appearance. That is the time when you are called before the judge and asked how you will plead to the charges against you, guilty or not guilty. This first court appearance is usually on the front of your ticket. If you don’t want to fight the ticket, you can plead guilty or “no contest”. No contest is almost the same as pleading guilty. Depending on the type of charge and your driving record, you may be able to get a lower fine than the amount on your ticket. In some courts, you will need to see the judge; in other courts, you can get a fine reduction from the clerk.
If you plead not guilty, a date will be set for your actual trial. In some courts, you are allowed to plead not guilty without seeing the judge; you can appear before a clerk or send in a letter. At the trial, the judge will take testimony and other evidence and decide if the case can be proven. If you plead guilty, the judge will sentence you at the same time.
Keep careful track of all court dates. Make sure the court and the Department of Motor Vehicles have your correct address. Failure to appear for any date can result in a license suspension or arrest warrant. If your case is a violation, you can lose the case by a default judgment and end up with a large fine.
In many courts, if you plead not guilty to a misdemeanor charge, you may appear three or more times -- for the arraignment, pre-trial hearings, and at the trial. The pre-trial hearing generally provides an opportunity to your lawyer to negotiate or plea bargain with the prosecuting attorney.
If you can't afford an attorney, but still feel you are innocent of the traffic violation or there were unusual circumstances in your case, request a trial of your case. That way, the officer who wrote the ticket will be notified to be there, and the judge can hear both sides. Remember that the officer has the burden to prove the case; you don’t have to prove anything.
Before you go to court, prepare your case. Check the law you are accused of violating to make certain you understand it. Oregon Revised Statutes can be found in the courthouse law library, many public libraries, and on the Internet. Chapters 153, 810 and 811 contain the laws that apply to most cases. These laws are sometimes printed in a separate book called the vehicle code. If photos, diagrams or maps will help your case, bring them to court. Bring any witnesses, especially people who were in the car with you at the time of the alleged violation. The judge won’t usually accept letters or telephone testimony; witnesses need to appear in person.
On the day of your trial, be sure to arrive early. Parking is usually limited, there can be lines entering the courthouse and it may be hard to find the correct courtroom. It can help to watch other cases, so you know what to expect. As much as possible, present your defense in clear and simple terms. Avoid legal terms you don't understand. Tell your story the way you see it. The court is usually very helpful to people without lawyers. Tell the truth, and present your case carefully. You don’t have to write out your testimony, but it helps to have an outline or notes so you remember what you want to say. If the judge decides the officer didn’t prove the case, you will be found not guilty. If the judge does decide that you violated a traffic law, the judge will enter a conviction on your driving record and will charge you a fine. The fine is often based on your driving record, your attitude, and the circumstances of your case.
If you lose the trial and think the judge made a legal error, you have the right to file an appeal within 30 days. However, keep in mind the cost of an appeal can easily exceed the amount of the fine. If you want to appeal, you should consult a lawyer immediately; appeals can be very technical and are difficult to win.
In some courts, the judge or the police officer may offer a traffic class or some other way of settling your case. For some types of cases, you may get a lower fine or dismissal of charges if you complete a class. Whether to settle your case is completely up to you, but make sure you do whatever you agree to do. Then follow up with the court later to make sure the case is concluded the way you intended.
Legal Editor: Henry LeSueur, January 2014.