What To Do if You Get a Traffic Ticket

Factors for deciding whether to pay a ticket or contest it

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on July 26, 2022

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When it comes to traffic violations, the bad news is most drivers will get a traffic ticket at some point in their driving careers.

The good news is most traffic violations are relatively minor offenses called civil infractions. Infractions include:

  • Speeding violations
  • Running a stop sign or red light
  • Parking tickets
  • Illegal turns

 “Civil infractions are non-criminal traffic violations” that carry fines, never jail time, says Michigan DUI defense attorney Daniel J. Larin.

There are, however, some criminal traffic violations, such as “fleeing and eluding [a police officer], driving on a suspended driver’s license, or leaving the scene of an accident,” Larin says. Along with offenses such as reckless driving and driving under the influence (DUI), these criminal traffic violations are handled in criminal court.

But civil infractions are handled in civil or traffic courts. If you get a traffic ticket, you have a few options for dealing with it. This article will cover those options and point to further legal help from experienced traffic violation lawyers.

Consequences of a Traffic Ticket

First, you might be wondering how a traffic ticket can impact you. Having to pay a fine is bad enough, but there can be other consequences as well.

While traffic laws and penalties vary by state, every state has a system that gives points to different types of traffic violations. If you’re found guilty of a traffic offense, your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will add points to your driving record. The more serious the offense, the more points are given.

For example, depending on the state’s system, a DUI misdemeanor might get several points, while making an illegal U-turn might earn one or two points.

If you get a certain number of points on your driving record within a certain period, your driver’s license will be suspended. State law defines the precise number of points and timeframe for license suspension. For example, your license may be suspended if you get 10 points within 12 months. The suspension can last several weeks or months, impacting your life significantly.

In addition to losing driving privileges, traffic violations frequently increase car insurance premiums. Your insurance company will likely raise your auto insurance rates with each new traffic ticket you get.

Learn more about traffic ticket penalties by reading this article.

Steps for Dealing with a Traffic Ticket

There are several options for resolving a traffic violation. The best solution will depend on your circumstances.

Using Michigan as the example, “You can either pay [the ticket] and suffer the consequences, or you can go into a court and ask for a formal or informal hearing,” says Larin.

  • Formal hearing. These hearings involve meeting “with a prosecutor and end up before a judge.”
  • Informal hearing. These hearings are “usually with the police officer, who determines if they want to negotiate your ticket down to a lesser offense. [If not], you go before the magistrate to plead your case,” he says.  

The standard of proof in traffic violation cases is “quite low,” says Larin.  The police only have to prove the violation by a “preponderance of the evidence, which is basically 51%.”

Because of this low threshold, “winning a traffic case is not easy to do… [the police officer] really just has to say, ‘Your honor, I witnessed this and this is what I saw.’ Typically, the judge will determine that they have no reason to doubt the police officer and will hold the driver responsible,” says Larin.  

Because it can be difficult to win a case, it’s a good idea to consult with a lawyer about your options in order to take the most effective action.

When You Get the Ticket

There are a few things to keep in mind when you get a traffic ticket:

  • Try to remain calm and polite. If you decide to go to court, anything you say can be held against you, and the police officer can testify to aggressive or rude behavior. This will reflect poorly on your case. Often in traffic court hearings, drivers will negotiate with the police officer to lower the fine. For any chance of getting a ticket reduced or dismissed, it’s best to be polite to the officer.
  • Get clear as to the reason for the ticket. Ask the officer why they pulled you over or gave you a ticket. For example, if they pulled you over for speeding, ask how they knew your speed (radar, etc.)
  • Check the ticket information. Make sure your personal information on the ticket is correct and it states the right offense. Typically, a ticket will include your vehicle information, the time and location of the incident, identification of the officer who issued the ticket, and the specific violation.
  • Document the incident. Write down what happened during the incident, so you remember it in detail if you go to court.

Research the Traffic Violation

Once you have the ticket, researching the violation is a good idea. Here are some good questions to think about as you look into it:

  • What is required to prove the violation?
  • What is the standard of proof?
  • What are the best defenses to the violation?
  • What is the ticket fee?
  • Are there any other fees involved, such as filing fees?
  • How will the ticket impact your insurance rates?
  • Will the ticket impact your driver’s license?

These questions will help you determine if it’s best to pay the ticket or if it’s worth challenging the ticket in court.

Option 1: Plead Guilty and Pay the Ticket

Paying the ticket is certainly the easiest way to deal with the issue. Many states allow drivers to pay tickets online, which is more convenient than mailing a check.

Even though it’s the most convenient option, paying the ticket pleads guilty to the offense, meaning the offense will go on your record. Acknowledging the guilt and paying ticket will probably result in insurance hikes. You will likely pay the highest price if you pay the ticket without contesting it.  

Other the other hand, you may not get a fee reduction if you go to court. It’s worth bearing these factors in mind as you consider your situation.

Option 2: Plead Guilty and Attend Driving School

Depending on your situation, another option, besides paying the ticket or going to court, is attending driving school. In this situation, you plead guilty or “no contest” and request to attend driving school instead of paying the fine.

In some states and for certain infractions, completing a defensive driving course will take care of the ticket and even eliminate the incident from your record.

The downside to this option is that you have to pay for the course and put the time and effort into completing it. The benefit is that it can reduce the number of offenses on your record, improving your insurance rates in the long run.

Option 3: Plead Not Guilty and Go to Court

The other option is to go to court and contest the ticket. If you do this, make sure you know the court date and where the right traffic court is located. Missing your court appearance means you “automatically lose,” says Larin. On the other hand, if the police officer doesn’t show up, the case is dismissed.

In preparation for your hearing, gather evidence about the incident and prepare your remarks.

The best evidence “really depends on what the individual is fighting,” says Larin. In general, there are a couple types of evidence you can prepare:

  • Witnesses. Larin says witnesses may “not be the best [source of evidence], especially if it’s your friend” but testimony from people from the scene can be helpful.
  • Camera footage. Having a “video camera in your car would be excellent evidence of an incident,” says Larin.
Defenses to a Traffic Ticket

There are a few defenses drivers can raise at a hearing. For example:

  • Radar. If the police officer was using a radar to determine speed, the driver can contend the radar was not calibrated correctly or there were problems with the way the device was used.
  • Speed limit. A piece of evidence that could be crucial in a speeding case is the “speed limit is not what the police officer said it was,” says Larin. “In some states, such as Michigan, the speed limit is not a specific number, but a speed that is generally safe to drive most times.” This gives drivers the opportunity to argue their driving was at a safe speed given the circumstances.

“In the majority of traffic cases, people are trying to negotiate something that’s not going to show up on their traffic record or [that will be] fewer points” instead of trying to deny the charge altogether, says Larin. He says, “Most police officers are amenable to negotiation.”

If you are unsure about representing yourself in traffic court, it’s an excellent idea to speak with a lawyer.

Questions for an Attorney

Fortunately, many attorneys provide free consultations, allowing the attorney to hear the facts of your case and for you to determine if the attorney meets your needs.

To see whether an attorney or law firm is a good fit, ask informed questions such as:

  • What are your attorneys’ fees?
  • What billing options do you offer?
  • What is your experience defending traffic violations?
  • What penalties could I be facing?
  • Should I pay the ticket or go to court?
  • Is driving school an option?

You can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. 

Look for a traffic violation lawyer in the Super Lawyers directory.

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